Russian, Chinese and American economic narratives

Some convince with numbers, most with stories.  When stories turn into national narratives, history is made.

Narratives turn complexity into simplicity, and give identity and purpose.  Individuals can be conflated into a nation state akin to a single person: “China will”, “Iran is…”

Even preposterous narratives convince if they feel right.  They can motivate people beyond their individual limits, for good or ill.  “Good” narratives can focus on a country’s living standards and global citizenship. “Bad” narratives can strip people of their individuality, create double standards of morality between in and out-groups, and encourage win: lose competition between countries.

Russia, China and America all have greatness narratives.

Russia is crumbling internally.  It has high morbidity, low fertility and risks population collapse.  It is deindustrialising.  It depends for exports on military and space technology and natural resources, not complex civil market products.   Elites control its wealth.

Russia’s malaise results from its lack of market memory and its autocratic history.   Market exchange requires respect for customers as individuals – economic autocracy does not.

Russia’s inability to develop a market economy and supporting institutions can be traced to Ivan the Terrible’s destruction of the boyar class.  Russia never developed a strong middle class that demanded property rights and the civil and political rights arising from them.  There was no Russian Magna Carta.

The 1917 Bolshevik revolution swept away Tsarist autocracy, however Russia did not have deep enough market roots for a modern economy to build from.  Coercion rather than market forces drove economic development.

Some Bolshevik leaders such as Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky favoured a New Economic Policy based on market liberalism.  Bukharin was a keen botanist, an accomplished poet, and had deep cultural interests.  He split with Stalin in 1929 over collectivisation, fearing it would lead to military-feudal exploitation.  His advice to peasants was” “enrich yourselves”.  His thinking on “market socialism” was influential among Chinese communists, and helped lay the groundwork for Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms.

Placed on trial for opposing Stalinism, Bukharin pleaded guilty to the “sum total” of crimes in the abstract, but denied specific crimes against particular individuals.

From the late 1920s, Stalin destroyed the kulaks, using famine as a weapon.  In doing so he crippled Soviet agriculture, despite its huge resource base and economic potential.  This is notable, because autocratic narratives impoverish even countries with huge resource advantages.  Mugabe created a famine in the bread basket of Africa!  Chavez created a petrol shortage in Venezuela, a country with the world’s higher per capita oil endowments!  Such tragedies occurred because populist and autocratic narratives replaced individualism and market exchange.

Putin has sought to recreate national pride through an imperial narrative expressing power over non-Russians.  He has courted Orthodox Church spiritual support, Solzhenitsyn’s cultural validation and Great Patriotic War history to support his narrative.  He shows no interest in economic advancement and lifting Russia’s own population out of degradation.

Arguably, China of all countries has had the longest historical periods in which it was the world technological leader with the highest per capita income and the most stable continuous polity.  Its market memory stretches back for centuries.  Much was suppressed by Mao Zedong’s communist government, but remained latent.  Even under Mao, Zhou en-lai drew on China’s cultural and market heritage to moderate communist excesses.

Zhou served as Premier from 1949 to 1976.  He acquired a life-long passion for Chinese literature and opera from his adoptive mother.  He supported liberal reforms that he saw beneficial for China.  He prevented Beijing from being renamed “East Is Red City”, and the Chinese guardian lions in front of Tiananmen Square from being replaced with statues of Mao… The 1966 Cultural Revolution destroyed cultural artefacts, but failed to destroy cultural narrative.

The Chinese people had subtle ways of signalling their views, even with limited civil rights.  Zhou’s death in January 1976 triggered nationwide grief for a leader seen as exemplifying cultural continuity, economic hope and supporting narrative.  The April 5 1976 Tiananmen Square incident saw about two million Chinese commemorate Zhou’s death with flowers, poems and prayers, rather than communist slogans.

Deng Xiaoping built on Zhou’s liberalising tendencies.  Though purged twice during the Cultural Revolution, he led China from 1978 to 1989 and liberalised China’s economy.  Zhou and Deng were Chinese patriots who used central planning as tools for China’s development, not for ideological ends.

Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun was known for moderation, empiricism rather than ideology, empathy with cultural minorities, and economic pragmatism.  He influenced Deng Xiaoping’s early experiments with market liberalisation, including the creation of special economic zones.

Key Chinese leaders learnt from other countries, and integrated that thinking into a Chinese cultural and economic context.   Xi Jinping was profoundly influenced by his 1985 visit to America to study agriculture, and to stay for a time with an American family.

China’s economic growth and dynamism comes from a powerful idea – China has been great, and will be great again.  Chinese leaders and people, including minorities within China share this narrative.  It has deep cultural and intellectual as well as economic roots, and connects to individual motivations.  Xi wants young people to “dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfil the dreams and contribute to the revitalisation of the China Dream”.

China liberalised its economy through learning by doing and thinking in time, not rigid ideology.  Chinese leaders characterised the process as crossing a river and “feeling for the slippery underwater stones”.  China opened the windows to let fresh market air in, but “kept the fly screens up” to avoid such destabilising forces as international financial crises.  It adopted a “bird-cage” strategy, liberalising within a framework based on China’s wider interests, and including a core role for the state.

China’s bureaucracy is meritocratic.  China has been innovative in its state-owned enterprise sector, in local government and private sector joint ventures, and in using state power to adopt and extend international technology.  Open debate and pluralism is welcome in China, but attacks on the Communist Party’s political legitimacy are not.

America has led the world scientifically, technologically and economically for the last century. It has unchallenged military capability.  America is still great, and does not have to revive an imaginary “lost greatness”.  However, individuals in Rust Belt zones and in low socio-economic groups do not feel great when they compare themselves with others, and benchmark themselves against past American “high expectations” narratives.

America’s current turmoil reflects conflicts between narratives.

One narrative is America as a melting pot where anyone can aspire to go from rags to riches, from log house to White House, or college drop-out to unicorn start-up entrepreneur.  America is an endless frontier of unbounded optimism, a City on the Hill.  Dreams come true if you want them to.

A Charles Koch variant is that America is the land of free business entrepreneurship involving a profit and loss system which creates opportunities for most, even though gains are unevenly distributed.  It concedes that some lose out, in relative if not in absolute terms.

This narrative is intellectually and socially libertarian.  Broadly, it resonates with the thinking of the late Milton Friedman, and of Tyler Cowen and Deirdre McCloskey.  This narrative supports free trade, and despises corporate welfare and vested interests (including coercive forms of trade unionism) that impede opportunities for others.  It is consistent with strong competition policy, however government’s role focuses largely on public goods rather than economic leadership.

This narrative supports helping the downtrodden through second chances, whether through prison reform or new entrepreneurial opportunities and the jobs and wealth coming from them.  It is humble enough to concede that the American free enterprise system failed indigenous Americans and Afro-Americans, but is deeply sceptical of stronger central government.

The American “liberal narrative” is a variant of European social democracy.  Its intellectual leaders include Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.  It supports a market system, but with a more prominent role for, and confidence in government.  It aims to replicate in the American economy the best features of the German and Scandinavian market systems, with their risk-buffering macro-economic and social policy devices.

Another American narrative thread is state and individual rights to counter perceived federal government over-reach. Its origin myths include the American War of Independence and the Constitution (selectively interpreted).  Its historical manifestations include attempted secession of the southern states during the Civil War, and the later overhang of Jim Crow policies.  Enduring cultural expressions include Gun Rights and the Tea Party.  Other American narratives are even more inchoate, or so divisive they speak only in code…

Donald Trump’s rise gives insights into facile, plausible narratives.  Such narratives typically have a core of truth. They are most powerful when their core of truth has been suppressed by those in elitist positions.  Stating truths that others have suppressed legitimatises a mass of subsequent falsehood.

President Trump is a master-singer of subtly false narratives, credentialed with uncomfortable truths.  Iraq was not developing nuclear weapons.  The Iraq invasion and its aftermath created a power vacuum ISIS filled.  America’s infrastructure is degraded.  That someone states these truths means false contentions about climate change and free trade are believed.

The difficulty with the Trump narrative is the inherent conflicts woven into its fabric.  There is no affinity of interest between the far right Republican establishment and the embittered Rust Belt.  The Trump narrative is supported by millions of American voters who would lose badly if the Affordable Care Act was repealed, or taxes on the rich reduced in a way that shifts the long-term burden to blue collar workers.  Trump’s trade, defence and climate change policies will damage America’s industrial base, erode its security, and forego massive opportunities from sustainable energy technologies.

However, damaging narratives such as the Trumperian patchwork can be challenged and co-opted.  Attitudes to single sex marriage improved when they were personalised as being about love, not abstract human rights.  American Muslim women can wear stars and stripes headdresses…

America has deep local democracy, intellectual pluralism, and effective constitutional checks and balances.  The tension between America’s federal and state government systems impedes central action.  However it also allows real-time experimentation between competing state policies.

America will meander before it develops a narrative it can rally around.  This narrative will have threads from Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Obama, and from market liberalism.  When it comes together, America will feel as well as be great.

However, true greatness for America, China, Russia and other big powers depends on their international as well as domestic contributions. This means shared narratives relating to global environmental, health, communication and security public goods, and to international rules fostering trade and international law.  Only then will these powers be authentically great; as they see themselves, and others see them.



Posted in Economics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Kinship, modernism and Donald Trump

Kinship, modernism and Donald Trump

Kinship-based societies are based around extended family relationships.  They transmit learning and beliefs vertically, from elders to children.  They may limit women’s rights, and have larger families.  These societies meet kin obligations, yet may permit cheating of out-group members and mandate tax evasion and benefit fraud.

Kinship-based societies dominate in tribal regions, and can be powerful in non-tribal ones. Some scholars such as Edward Banfield attributed Southern Italy’s underdevelopment to “amoral familism” that focuses narrowly on family interests, and assumes others do the same.  This leaves little space for social capital and non-kin collective projects.

Modernist societies value individual advancement and meritocracy.  They are typically urbanised, engaged with international trade, and they learn horizontally from non-kin sources.  Women have rights, and are likely to participate in the paid workforce.  Modernist societies have small families, and invest heavily in individual children.

Urbanisation, IT and mass media make it easier to learn from non-relatives, and for horizontal cultural transmission to occur.  Famously, TV soap operas depicting modernist lifestyles led to reduced fertility rates in Brazilian favelas communities.

Humanistic principles, civil society, moral codes, and secular institutions underpin modernist societies.  Taxes are moral as well as legal obligations, to deliver shared public services, and to socially mitigate individual risks.  Modernism dominates in regions such as East Asia, Western Europe and North America.

America is a modernist society, yet it has a kinship-based President.  Donald Trump is a product of kin influences from his grandfather and father, and ideation from sources such as Fox News.  He is a kinship-based, amoral family leader, misplaced within a modernist society.

Donald Trump came to power with the support of a Republican Party tribally visceral in its hostility to out-groups. He made his money from inheritance, asset management, real estate price inflation and amoral business ruthlessness.  He created no new technology, innovation or idea.  None of his investments deliver wider social benefits.  Trump Tower and his golf courses will survive him as artefacts.  Nothing he created will be a platform for future enduring benefits.

Kinship-based societies are poor partly because they under-deliver social innovations.  Such innovations deliver non-rival benefits that spill-over wider than those which can be captured by individuals and kin.  They persist longer than an individual’s lifetime, and are building blocks for future innovation.

Social innovation sparks future innovation that transcends individual and kin-based interests.  It underpins ongoing human creativity, technological development and higher civilisation.

Paradoxically, it is “individualistic” modernist societies that deliver social innovation, yet such innovation requires feelings for others and magnanimous spirit.

America’s constitutional protections are constraining President Trump.  However, it is American generosity of mind and intellectual unboundedness that will end his presidency.  America can then once again become the leader of the modernist world.


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Poets better prove – the sacred craft challenges autocracy

Great Russian writers such as Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky opposed Tsarist tyranny.  Their successors challenged the Bolshevik autocracy.

The Bolsheviks knew the power of literature.  Lenin never forgave Dostoyevsky’s devastating critique of revolutionary thinking in The Devils.  The Soviet regime sought to co-opt literature to its cause.  A Soviet ruling decreed that “any preaching of ideological emptiness, of an apolitical attitude, of ‘art for art’s sake,’ is foreign to Soviet literature, and harmful to the interests of the Soviet people and State.”

Stalin knew that Russian cultural achievement preceded and would survive him, that it defined people’s collective narrative, and that it could laud or demonise leaders.  He created a Soviet-era Pushkin cult, and co-opted Maxim Gorky to burnish his regime’s cultural legitimacy.  Gorky’s relationship with Stalin broke down in 1935, and he died in 1936 in mysterious circumstances.

The four greatest twentieth century Russian poets were Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Boris Pasternak (1890–1960).  Many Bolshevik leaders had a near superstitious reverence for poetry – and fear of it.  Russian poets were the abstract chronicles of the nation.  As Mandelstam wrote:

A people needs poems darkly familiar

to keep them awake forever…


Bukharin warned Stalin that “poets are never wrong”.  Pasternak’s prowess as a translator of Georgian poetry saved him from the NKVD, with Stalin instructing his secret police to “leave this cloud-dweller alone”.

However, poetry could also prove lethal.  Mandelstam remarked in the midst of Stalin’s terror:  “poetry is respected only in this country – it gets people killed.” He wrote his Stalin Epigram:

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.


Mandelstam was arrested, and he died incarcerated in December 1938.

His widow Nadezhda Mandelstam chronicled the Soviet suppression of literature in   two memoirs: Hope against hope and Hope abandoned.  She wrote that: “…they always knew what they were doing: the aim was to destroy not only people, but the intellect itself”.

Stalin aimed to undermine people’s critical faculties and replace them with simplistic faith in himself, the Party, and the ideology and identity politics that supported them. He sought a new narrative for Russia based on class warfare, the “New Soviet Man”, and “Heroes of Labour”.  These were stylised, abstract figures lacking authentic human nature.

Nadezhda Mandelstam argued that “the usual line was to denounce history as such: it had always been the same, mankind had never known anything but violence and tyranny.”  The Stalinist regime “attacked all old concepts just because they were old. . . Everything was dismissed as fiction.  Freedom?  There’s no such thing and never was!…Terms such as ‘honor’ and ‘conscience’ went out of use at this time…”

The result was the degrading of Russian culture and the destruction of those who safeguarded it.  The heaviest toll among the intelligentsia during the 1930s purges was among writers.

Marina Tsvetaeva’s husband died in a labour camp, and she committed suicide in 1941.  As writers died or fell silent, Stalin turned to Eisenstein’s cinematography to reconstruct Ivan the Terrible’s image, to strengthen his own.  Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part 1 was an apologia for the Tsar, and tacitly for Stalin.  Ivan the Terrible Part 2 depicted the Tsar’s mental deterioration, and was banned till after Stalin’s death…

However during the Great Patriotic War, patriotic poetry revived.  Konstantin Simonov’s Remember Alyosha drew on Russian history and cultural continuity to hearten Russian soldiers.

Persecution then revived after the war, and continued into the 1950s.  On 12 August 1952, 13 Soviet Jewish poets, intellectuals and professionals were executed in Lubkyanka prison in Moscow.  By 1954, only 50 writers remained alive of the 700 who had met at the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers twenty years earlier.

The only two great writers who survived Stalin’s terror were Akhmatova and Pasternak.

Akhmatova’s husband was executed, and her son imprisoned.  The Russian people, as Stalin saw them, had “a craving for an all-embracing idea which would explain everything in the world and bring about universal harmony at one go.”  Nazism and Stalinism sought racially or ideologically pure utopias controlled by rulers who did the thinking for the compliant masses.  Akhmatova did not believe in utopias:


Our sacred craft has existed

For a thousand years.

With it even a world without light would be bright.

But not one poet has ever yet said

That there is no wisdom and no old age,

And that possibly there is no death.


The greatest intellectual threat to Stalin was Shakespeare, who was enormously influential in Russia.  Catherine the Great loved Shakespeare. In the years following the 1825 Decembrist revolt, Shakespeare’s works helped to interpret to Russia the meaning of the times.  Pushkin drew on Shakespeare’s inspiration to help create a Russian national literature.

Belinsky argued that “reading Shakespeare’s drama shows that each person is a legitimate artistic subject, however low he stands in the social hierarchy and even in humanity as such”.  Lermontov wrote that Shakespeare is “a genius too broad to comprehend, penetrating into people’s hearts and fates”. Turgenev placed him among Titans and semi-gods.  Dostoyevsky regarded him as “the prophet sent us by God to announce the mystery of man, and of man’s soul”.

During the 1940 blitz, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany, Ahkmatova telegraphed through Shakespearean imagery which side Russia’s literati were on in To the Londoners.

The twenty-fourth drama of Shakespeare

Time is writing with its indifferent hand.

We, ourselves, the guests at this awful event,

Better would read Hamlet, Caesar, and Lear

Over the river, in heavy lead clad;

Better – to bear, with singing and torches,

Juliet, the dove, to her family’s graves,

Peep into windows of Macbeth’s castle

Tremble with the knife of the hired assassin

But not this one, this one, this one –

This one we don’t have the strength to read…


Shakespeare’s plays and poems attack vaulting ambition, and power achieved through murder.  They allude to the tyrant’s stroke, and to art tongue-tied by authority.  In Shakespeare, death levels paupers and kings: “imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away”.

The sonnets are about one individual’s feelings for another.  They are concerned with love, mortality, the uniqueness and value of individuality, and with moments in time, not with group narratives or collective morality tales.  They see love triumphing over princes’ monuments and tyrants’ brass tombs.

Pasternak turned to translation to avoid persecution for contentious writings, and became famous for his Shakespeare translations.  Only after Stalin’s death was his greatest prose work, Dr Zhivago published.  It is concerned with individuals not collectives. It was sharply criticized in Israel for its assimilationist views on the Jewish people.  Pasternak’s response was: “I am above race”.

Pasternak survived Stalin’s time, avoiding where he could literary meetings subject to state scrutiny.  At one gathering Pasternak knew his loyalty to the state would be questioned if he stayed away, if he attended and remained silent, or if he said anything that could be used against him.  Urged to speak, he finally stood up and said “thirty-two”, and then sat down again.  He was referring to his translation of sonnet 32:

If thou survive my well-contented day,

When that churl death my bones with dust shall cover,

And shalt by fortune once more re-survey

These poor rude lines of thy deceasèd lover,

Compare them with the bettering of the time,

And though they be outstripped by every pen,

Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,

Exceeded by the height of happier men.

O then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:

“Had my friend’s muse grown with this growing age,

A dearer birth than this his love had brought

To march in ranks of better equipage.

But since he died and poets better prove,

Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love”.

In this sonnet, Shakespeare imagines his lover outliving him.  While future poets may outshine him, this will not take away from Shakespeare’s love while he lived.

Sonnet 112 sees a scandalised Shakespeare surviving only through the love one person has for him.    Simonov’s Wait for me sees a Russian soldier in the Great Patriotic War attribute his survival only to his wife’s confidence he would return, when all others assumed him dead, and were drinking to his memory.  The soldier survived, only because his wife, and only her, waited for him:

These intimate, humanised feelings between people are possible only when there is unique individuality. They are impossible when people are conceived as abstract group caricatures.


Stalin particularly hated Hamlet, ostensibly because “Hamlet’s indecisiveness and depression were incompatible with the new Soviet spirit of optimism, fortitude, and clarity”.  Hamlet was banned from 1941 until Stalin’s death.

The great Soviet theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold was obsessed with Hamlet, and had plans to stage it.  He was murdered by Stalin’s secret police, and his wife stabbed to death.  Meyerhold had told his friends “Engrave on my tombstone ‘here lies an actor who never played and never staged Hamlet’.” 

Hamlet posed an existential threat to Stalin.  Like Claudius, Stalin had murdered for power.  Hamlet was just a sword stroke away from the head of state.  He was intellectually autonomous. Squares in tyrannous states are huge to make individuals feel small.  Hamlet could be bounded in a nutshell and count himself the king of infinite space.

Claudius might justify his actions because Denmark was subject to external threat, needed strong leadership, and could not afford internal strife.  Stalin used such arguments to justify his tyranny.  Shakespeare never believed that individuals should be sacrificed for power or “the good of the masses”.

Stalin lived a life of public “adulation” and private loneliness. His wife committed suicide.  Stalin executed almost all his closest Bolshevik colleagues, and was left without any close friendships.

Millions died in the gulags from 1929 to 1953.  In 1937 and 1938 Stalin signed lists condemning masses of people to execution.  When reviewing one such list, he muttered: “Who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years’ time? No one.  Who remembers the names now of the Boyars that Ivan the Terrible got rid of?  No one.”

However, those who survived the gulags remembered those who had died.   The ghost in Hamlet wanted to be remembered, as much as to be avenged.  Did Stalin fear that survivors might seek revenge?  Or was his fear how he would be remembered in Russia’s cultural memory?

At Pasternak’s stage-managed funeral in 1960, party officials were horrified when mourners spontaneously recited a banned Pasternak poem comparing Hamlet to Soviet reality.

The sacred craft outlived autocracy.


Posted in Economics, Shakespeare | 2 Comments

How innovation can fulfil our future

By Peter Winsley, 15 February 2017

Malaise[i] in developed countries can be countered through productivity growth.  This creates wealth for those working productively, and for social transfers and expanded services.  However, people want meaningful work and empowered lives, not compensatory afterthoughts.  If there is no “we” in a shared journey on the same timetable, there is only “them and us”, and future fears.

Monetary and fiscal policy[ii] lacks traction, and productivity growth can only come from innovation that delivers wider spill-over benefits.  There are positive correlations between innovativeness and social mobility, driven by new entries more than incumbents[iii].  However, network returns, market power, intellectual property and tax regimes mean innovation often leads to “winner take all” effects.

Innovation “superstars” reinforce myths that a few private individuals working in isolation drive innovation.  In fact, most transformative technologies now depend on public funding[iv] and social learning, not individual “genius”.

None of us in the developed world deserve what we have.  Our wellbeing largely results from luck – when and where we were born, and history’s physical and intellectual gifts to us.  The technologies we use were developed by others, from different times, countries and cultures.

While business responds to today’s demands, government needs to address long-term societal challenges.  These include aging populations, health, and resource management.

A business can be like a hedgehog that knows just one or a few big things.  However, a government must be like a fox that knows and does lots of things.  It must play a large and multi-faceted role in innovation, including steering private investment in ways that support a wider social flourishing[v].

Government needs to invest in human capital, infrastructure such as roads and broad band, and systems to manage sustainable distributed energy generation[vi].

Corporate and incumbent welfare[vii] stifles innovation, while new business entries foster it.  Institutions and policy settings therefore need to foster competition and innovation.  For example, patent thickets, trolling, and excessive vagueness and duration of intellectual property rights impede innovation.  Government should shorten intellectual property protection, and let entrepreneurs exploit grey areas where rights are unclear.

The US FDA illustrates how excessive regulatory hurdles impose social costs[viii]. Its processes are ill-suited to some personalised medicine, combinational therapies and low risk devices.  New Zealand could do better[ix] through agile institutions and greater tolerance of high salient risk to deliver low visibility but high impact health advances[x].

New Zealand needs increased domestic savings rates[xi] to lift capital intensity and labour productivity, to reduce real interest and exchange rates, and to improve tradeable sector performance[xii].  Compulsory savings schemes and fine-tuning the tax system could encourage savings and investment that underpin the productive sector.

Shifting social policy transfers from consumption subsidies to capability development investment could build human and financial capital to drive innovation and productivity growth[xiii].

Risk capital is needed for innovation, and patient capital to retain benefits in New Zealand.  Private investors focus on privately-captured benefits, while the state should focus on long-term benefits for New Zealand[xiv].

Venture capitalists often support serial entrepreneurship where investments are realised and reinvested.  However, New Zealand struggles to retain long-run benefits from knowledge-intensive manufacturing and services (KIMS) businesses[xv].  State agencies could use investment stakes to anchor some core activities in New Zealand.  These could relate to head office, design, IT and R&D functions.  When a KIMS business reaches international scale, has core competencies embedded in New Zealand, and is financially self-sustaining state investors can exit and reinvest in new businesses[xvi].

New Zealand has exceptional opportunities for technology adoption and extension.    There is a rising productivity gap between global frontier and other businesses[xvii].  Innovators need to connect to businesses on the global technological production possibility frontier and learn from them.

New Zealand “innovation” is essentially extension of international advances.  It must start with documenting prior art and international understanding[xviii].  This both drives technology adoption and seeds new ideas for innovation.  A focus on long-term innovation therefore pays short-term technology adoption dividends.

Research clutter and duplication, “outcome switching”, unreproducible and trivial results and methodological weaknesses blight research internationally[xix].  Research can focus on what fits the methods recognised in peer review, not what needs to be understood or done[xx].  Publication counts and author attributions are inflated to lift “box ticking” ratings[xxi].

New Zealand is too small to capture benefits from its own science-push research.  It should specialise in the rapid adoption, extension and commercialisation of international basic science. This is not free-riding, since our international contribution is applied technology that delivers consumer surpluses and wider spill-over benefits[xxii].

Curiosity-driven research within time-frames that suit researchers will not lead in a linear way to innovation[xxiii].  Innovation requires external engagement, user focus, two-way learning, and a drive to create technology that improves people’s lives.  In longitudinal and in some biological and ecological studies long time-frames are inevitable.  However, as evidenced in the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Programme, technology can answer to deadlines.

Our publicly-funded research should deliver technological solutions, and the results should then be codified in publications that show how impacts were made[xxiv].  This is more holistically challenging than unfocused research as it requires more social engagement and interactive learning.  Technological achievements, not promises, should drive academic standing and institutional rankings.

New Zealand can succeed in innovation in differentiated as well as commodity-based industries[xxv].  Its businesses do well in “hard to research” industry good markets, and in customised short production runs.  Many leverage economies of scope rather than scale.  IT facilitates disintermediation and integration into global value chains.  It mitigates economic geography and engineering scale economy constraints.  It has transformative capacity in fields as diverse as “Internet of Things” enablers, precision agriculture, social media and digital finance.

Freeman Dyson in The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet[xxvi]envisages sustainable energy, biotechnology and the Internet ending rural intellectual isolation and economic stagnation.  These capabilities, together with small-scale 3D manufacturing and natural environment assets can create opportunities within provincial New Zealand.

The US is reducing emphasis on climate change mitigation and sustainable energy in favour of greater fossil fuel dependency.  Fossil fuels are capital-intensive resources that concentrate power and create few knowledge-intensive jobs or wider innovative and entrepreneurial opportunities.

New Zealand should do the opposite to the US.  It has among the world’s highest per capita natural resource endowments.  Climate change response and sustainability shifts create opportunities in agriculture, renewable energy, timber engineering and biomaterials innovation.  Much of this is differentiated[xxvii], capital-light and knowledge-intensive innovation that creates opportunities for many New Zealand businesses and regions.

In such a tale of two countries New Zealand would do better socioeconomically and environmentally, and benefit more from the longer-term sustainability upside.

Manufacturing sector productivity frees up resources to expand service sector employment.  This is often low paid, low status work.  However, labour market policy settings can change to value the deeply human skills that automation cannot replace.  Service sector jobs can evolve to build new working life identities and social standing[xxviii].

Social investment approaches and data analytics can lift service sector productivity directly, and through interventions that avoid future costs from crime and benefit dependency.

Health and education sector productivity is low, partly because it requires voluntary patient and student cooperation.  The challenge is to make working with people as efficient as manipulating physical objects, while fostering respectful relationships and the meaning and self-worth that come with them[xxix].

Innovation will only fulfil our future if we socially mandate it.  People need such survival traits as prudence, tact, and frugality.  They also need expansive traits of courage, truth-telling, and generosity that create opportunities for others.

We need to value our risk takers and innovators more than our sportspeople and celebrities.  Then our entrepreneurial spirits will flourish, and innovation will fulfil our future.



[i] Malaise as described in:

[ii] Near zero interest rates seem to be having no effect in countering economic stagnation.  Keynesian expansion succeeded dramatically from the late 1930s due to recovery from the Great Depression, long waves of technological innovation dating from the 19th century, war stimulus followed by meeting pent-up consumer demand from deferred consumption, followed by a  baby boom.  These conditions are unusual and unlikely to be repeated.  The US economy had high employment and productive capacity utilisation in the lead up to the 2016 Presidential election.  Given this, growth from high Keynesian multipliers through fiscal expansion seems unlikely, even if through massive infrastructure investment.  See Glaesar, E. 2016: If you build it…Myths and realities about America’s infrastructure spending.  City Journal.

[iii] Aghion, et al 2015: Innovation and top income inequality  NBER Working Paper No. 21247

[iv] See Mazzucato, M. 2015: The Creative State.  RSA Journal Issue 2, pp. 12-17.

[v] See Phelps, E. 2013: Mass Flourishing.  Princeton University Press.

[vi] An example is ways to manage the integration of distributed and intermittent energy sources into a reliable national system.

[vii] For example, government bail-outs, grants or special deals for existing businesses, overly tight intellectual property protection, regulatory restrictions on new housing, and protection of professional rent-seeking.

[viii] These include the size and duration of clinical trials.

[ix] An example would be giving patients, under personalised clinical guidance, access to drugs that have passed safety trials but have yet to be approved.

[x] The FDA’s risk aversion avoids a visible death at the cost of “invisible graveyards” due to delays in therapeutic advances.  See Madden, B. 2010: Free to choose medicine.  National Center for Policy Analysis.

[xi] It matters where investment is sourced and where revenue is earned.  Dollars earned from exports are different to those borrowed offshore.  The former create wealth, net worth and capability, the latter a rising debt servicing burden.  Likewise, income from gainful employment is more valuable sociologically than benefit payments.

[xii] See OECD 2016: OECD structural mission to New Zealand 29 August – 2 September 2016.  OECD.

[xiii] One approach might be to give all children a capability development account to be used only for education and investment in assets that enhance productive capacity and build net worth.  Social policy transfers that subsidise adult consumption could instead be channelled into these accounts.

[xiv] For an interesting discussion of the state’s role in innovation see Mazzucato, M.; Perez, C. 2014: Innovation as growth policy: the challenge for Europe.  SPRU, Working Paper Series 2014-13.

[xv] KIMS businesses enrich product diversity and therefore product space opportunities.  See Hausmann, R. Hidalgo, C. et al, The Atlas of Economic Complexity: Mapping Paths to Prosperity. Published jointly Harvard Kennedy School and Center for Economic Development; and MIT Media Lab, 2011. Also see Hidalgo, C. et al  2007: The product space conditions the development of nations.  Science 27 July 2007.

[xvi] Such state investments could turn “intellectual putty” into “clay” embedded into New Zealand’s productive base on a longer-term basis.

[xvii] Andrews et al, 2015: Frontier Firms, Technology Diffusion and Public Policy: Micro Evidence from OECD Countries.  OECD.

[xviii] Some New Zealand researchers and innovators put too little effort into this.

[xix] Sarewitz, 2016: Saving science.  The New Atlantis.  Spring-Summer 2016.

[xx] See Deaton, A.; Cartwright, N. 2016: Understanding and misunderstanding randomised controlled trials.  NBER Working Paper No. 22595.  See also Hausmann, R. 2016: The problem with evidence-based policies.  Project Syndicate 25 February.

[xxi] These behaviours reflect the bad incentives that are created for scientists, and should not be blamed on scientists themselves.

[xxii] Examples include Fisher and Paykel’s healthcare innovation, Graham Liggins’ development of steroid solutions to foetal lung maturation challenges, and Hayward Wright’s development of the international kiwifruit industry based on imported plant material.

[xxiii] Taylor (2016) argues that New Zealand appears “to be far more focused on scientific research than on technological innovation”. See Taylor, M. Z. 2016: The politics of innovation.  Why some countries are better than others at science and technology.  Oxford University Press.

[xxiv] Much basic science is a spin-off from applied research and technological development.  Pasteur’s research on applied health and agricultural problems helped create microbiology science.  Karl Jansky founded much of radio-astronomy while exploring practical telecommunications problems for Bell Labs.

[xxv] R&D in commodity-based industries can be of exceptionally high productivity as its costs are spread over large product volumes.  There can therefore be an inverse relationship between R&D productivity and R&D intensity as measured by R&D expenditure as a proportion of total business revenue.

[xxvi] Dyson, F. 1999:  The Sun, the Genome and the Internet.  Oxford Books.

[xxvii] Such differentiated businesses may be small, however this can be an advantage.  Smaller, knowledge-intensive businesses have a higher ratio of external surface area to mass and therefore greater potential for a higher proportion of staff to be interacting with and learning from external parties.

[xxviii] People value personal relationships in market transactions and in their wider lives.  This is influenced by national and cultural context.  German trades people have higher standing that their Anglophone counterparts.  French waiters demand more respect than US or New Zealand ones.  Recreational and community services are often driven by people’s desire for esteem based on a sense of indispensability or self-worth in a specialised field.

[xxix] A good start would be banning the instrumentalist term “human resources”.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

What caused the mess we are in, and how do we get out of it?

By Peter Winsley

16 January, 2017

Inequality, social malaise, and identity-based extremism result from productivity trends, technological change, globalisation, and business models.  These sit within tax, labour market, competition, trade, intellectual property and other policy settings that governments can change.  Policy makers must find ways to drive inclusive growth with widely-shared benefits that restore self-worth and open society.

Globally, wealth has never been more evenly spread (Heise, 2016).  However in some developed countries inequality has risen.  Since the early 1970s incomes in the US for the top 1% rose by around 300%, while incomes for those below the top 10% stagnated.  The real median income of US households was less in 2016 than in 1999 (Cowen, 2016).

In the US, rates of “absolute income mobility” – the fraction of children who earn more than their parents – have fallen from around 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s (Chetty et al, 2016).  Some communities have seen rises in drug abuse and morbidity (Case & Deaton, 2015), and reduced life expectancy (NCHS, 2016).

Divergence has grown between the most profitable businesses and those in the mainstream.  This divergence reflects a mix of frontier firms with exceptional innovative capabilities, network effects, and mergers and acquisitions that create market power and monopolistic pricing (Barth et al, 2014; Furman & Orszag, 2015).  This has led to higher economic rents

Productivity and median incomes have diverged.  For example, in the US from 1948 to 1973 productivity grew by 96.7% and hourly compensation by 91.3%.  From 1973-2014 productivity grew by 72.2% and hourly compensation by only 9.2% (Bivens & Mishel, 2015).

Technological change in the manufacturing and IT industries has reduced material goods and IT costs.  It has also destroyed many jobs, with employment growth largely being in ill-paid service sectors.  Productivity gains have therefore not translated into well-rewarded jobs.  Identity as well as skill mismatches have occurred as self-worth and pride disappeared with the jobs that gave rise to them.

Globalisation is associated with manufacturing sector job losses.  However, Helpman (2016) concludes that while trade has played a role in increasing wage inequality, its cumulative effect has been modest, and globalization does not explain most of the rise in wage inequality within countries.

Malaise comes when businesses lose sight of external customers and focus on management and shareholder interests.  Examples include the finance sector model leading to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and the Maximising Shareholder Value (MSV) model.

In the lead up to the GFC, banks went from financing economies’ capital needs to financing themselves.  Even as local, community banks declined, finance expanded as a proportion of the economy.  The GFC lowered the path of GDP in advanced economies (Fatas & Summers, 2015).  It caused enduring negative impacts on future output (Ball, 2015).  Post-GFC attempts to reduce government debt have likely resulted in a higher debt to GDP ratio associated with negative output effects.

The GFC saw lower income people lose jobs and incomes, and then bail out finance companies “too big to fail”.  Gains were privatised and losses socialised.  This corporate welfare helped give rise to the Tea Party movement and subsequent American and European populism.

In the post-World War Two period in the developed world, a “retain and invest” business model drove innovation, productivity, social mobility and real income advances.  Shareholders were rewarded with dividends from patient capital and long-term productivity growth.  Stable employment helped workplace learning translate into sustained productivity and job security.

William Lazonik (2014; 2015, 2016) documents how, from around the 1980s, many corporations moved to an MSV model.  This created incentives for share price manipulation, insider trading, and share buy-back schemes.  These diverted finance away from innovation and other productive investment towards short-term management and shareholder interests (Kozul-Wright, 2016).

Over 2003 to 2012 the largest 500 US companies returned more than US$2.4 trillion to shareholders through share buy-back and other arrangements.  US public corporations now have record cash holdings, and total pay-outs to shareholders as a percentage of net income are at record levels (Kahle & Stulz, 2016).

Both the financial conduct associated with the GFC, and the MSV model diverted resources from innovation and productivity growth into short-term gains for the privileged few.

Policy levers are needed to address problems that policy makers have allowed to happen.  However, options are limited.  Monetary policy has little traction at low interest rates.  There is scepticism about how big the Keynesian multiplier is now in many economies.  Infrastructure spending may not be effective (Glaesar, 2016).  Many countries face environmental limits, debt burdens, unfunded entitlements and ageing populations.

Crony capitalism and corporate welfare in western countries do not deliver widely-shared benefits.  State capitalism degrades people’s rights and freedoms.  Populist movements are shallow, divisive and capricious.  Social welfare transfers cannot compensate for labour market income losses.  People want jobs for meaning, standing and social connections, not just money.  A dollar earned is worth more than a dollar paid as a benefit.

However there are opportunities, and cues on where to focus.  Middle class spending power is rising within growing and better connected world populations. Climate change and resource depletion creates demand for technological and investment responses.  Businesses are cash-rich and interest rates are low.

Never before have so many scientists and technologists been active in so many different fields and countries.  Physical communication has never been cheaper, nor idea exchanges greater, more diverse, faster, or more stimulating.

My next paper will argue for an inclusive innovation strategy to lift productivity and deliver broadly-shared benefits.


Ball, L. 2014: Long-term damage from the Great Recession in OECD countries.  NBER Working Paper 20185.

Barth, E. et al 2014: It’s where you work: Increases in earnings dispersion across establishments and individuals in the US.  IZA DP No. 8432.

Bivens, J.; Mishel, L. 2015: Understanding the historical divergence between productivity and a typical worker’s pay. Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper No. 406.  2 September 2015.

Case, A.; Deaton, A. 2015: Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century.  Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America 112(49).

Chetty, R. et al 2016: The fading American dream: trends in absolute income mobility since 1940: NBER Working Paper No. 22910.

Cowen, T. 2016: Is Innovation Over? The Case Against Pessimism.  Foreign Affairs March/April 2016 Issue.

Fatas, A.; Summers, L. 2015: The permanent effects of fiscal consolidations.  CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP10902.

Furman, J.; Orszag, P. 2015: A firm-level perspective on the role of rents in the rise of inequality.  Presentation at ‘A Just Society’ Centennial Event in Honor of Joseph Stiglitz.  Columbia University.

Glaeser, E. 2016: If you build it…Myths and realities about America’s infrastructure spending.  City Journal, Summer 2016.

Heise, M 2016: The Complexity of Inequality.  Project Syndicate 9 December, 2016.

Helpman, E. 2016: Globalisation and wage inequality.  NBER Working Paper No. 22994.

Khale, K.; Stulz, R. 2016: Is the American Public Corporation in Trouble?  NBER Working Paper No. 22857.

Kozul-Wright, R. 2016: Returning to investment.  Project Syndicate 6 October 2016.

Lazonick, W. 2016: The Value-Extracting CEO: How executive stock-based pay undermines investment in productive capabilities.  Institute for New Economic Thinking.  Working Paper No. 54.

Lazonick, W. 2015: Stock buybacks: From retain and reinvest to downsize-and-distribute.  Centre for Effective Public Management at Brookings.

Lazonick, W. 2014: Profits without prosperity.  Harvard Business Review September 2014 Issue.

NCHS 2016: Mortality in the United States 2015.  NCHS Data Brief No. 267.



Posted in Economics, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Letter to Donald Trump

23 December 2016

Dear Donald

What you bring to the Presidency is the ability to reach across the aisle, make workable deals, and drive them through Congress. 

You also need to carry Americans with you.  To do this, you must drive a wave of innovation that delivers mass benefits and a nationwide flourishing.  

You need the entrepreneurs and wealthy investors to make this happen.  However, well-rewarded blue collar jobs and middle class upwards mobility must be delivered. America must show leadership in the world.

America’s difficulties do not come from trade, or from Hispanic immigrants.  America has the right to ensure other countries respect its intellectual property rights, and that foreign bureaucrats do not impede its exports.  All countries have the right to control their borders.  However, you need to deal with the real causes of America’s malaise. 

The American tax and regulatory system has favoured the existing wealthy and powerful, and led to corporate welfare and economic stagnation.  It has destroyed the self-esteem of millions of Americans through eroding meaningful employment and the sense that people have control over their lives.

American businesses used to lead the world in innovation to deliver great new products to customers, and to create jobs that give people pride as well as better lives.  Such businesses were based on the “retain and invest” model. 

Since the 1970s, these businesses have been degraded by the “maximize shareholder value’ model.  This has led to share buy-backs and excessive CEO benefits, at the expense of long-term wealth creation.  Banks drifted away from their core lending functions to developing complex derivatives disconnected from the real world.  Inept regulation and tax policy allowed this to happen.

The American education system needs to be upgraded and made more equitable.  Vocational education linked to academic content needs to be expanded.  Social and ethnic background should not become social predestination.  Invest in young Americans!  Give every American child a Great America capability development account, to be used only for education, business and home ownership investment.  This should be favoured over tax cuts.

US decision-making has been gridlocked through politics, regulation, and litigation.  You have broken the political gridlock.  Regulation is needed to protect the environment, working conditions, health and safety.  However, too much corporate welfare, agricultural subsidies, occupational licensing, and FDA and other regulation burdens Americans and stifles their innovation.  Cut through it with well-targeted secateurs, not a chainsaw!

America’s litigious environment is more about coupon-clipping and deadweight loss than it is about justice.  Test some new ideas.  Look at New Zealand’s Accident Compensation scheme.

In healthcare, ask yourself why other western democracies have better health coverage, and why it is far cheaper.  Retain the best elements of “Obamacare”.  Look at a single-payer system.  Learn from what New Zealand has done with its Pharmac model.

Invest in a massive upgrading of America infrastructure.  Lead America’s transformation to a sustainable society that manages through climate change and bullet-proofs its future.  This means millions of job making electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, smart grid technology and biomaterials.  This is far more job-rich and technology-intensive than fossil fuel production.  It would break the power of oil producers in countries hostile to democratic values.  You can pay for future tax cuts from the wealth streams the above strategy would generate in future.

Simplify the American tax code, and if you must cut taxes do so to benefit the working poor and middle classes.   A destination-based consumption tax and elimination of interest tax deductions could level the trade playing field, keep jobs in America, and discourage debt-fuelled real estate and financial sector growth.

Work constructively with China and Russian, since common interests are greater than differences.  Avoid future entanglements, and foster potential new friends such as Iran.  Deal with international issues in a constitutional way that respects international law.  The breakdown of trade and of arms limitation agreements would be catastrophic for everyone. 

You have your chance to make America Great.  History will not forgive failure, so let’s make sure it canonizes your success.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Peter Winsley

Wellington, New Zealand

Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

Why Shakespeare is important for young people

By Peter Winsley, December 2016

William Shakespeare is the world’s greatest playwright and poet.  He is also the greatest psychologist, because he reflected human nature as he observed it, not as it was later theorized to be.

Shakespeare wrote around forty plays, 154 sonnets, narrative and other poems.  A key theme in Shakespeare is never to waste time:  “I wasted time and time wasted me”.  “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late”.

He was a gifted poet, but as a friend observed, poets are made as well as born – he worked hard at his craft.

Some think of Shakespeare’s characters as fictional creations, some as real people, some as possible people.  Those of his plays with original plots were the exemplars of the imagination: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.  The first celebrates language and word-play for its own sake:

This fellow pecks up wit as pigeons pease, And utters it again when God doth please: He is wit’s pedler, and retails his wares At wakes and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs… To show his teeth as white as whale’s bone…

O, never will I trust to speeches penn’d,            Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue…

The latter two plays assert the human mind’s unbounded capabilities, the joy of language, rhymed or unrhymed, staying with you even without the story:

Before the time I did Lysander see, seemed Athens as a paradise to me.

I’ll follow thee and make a heaven of hell, to die upon the hand I love so well.

I am as ugly as a bear, beasts that see me run away for fear.

…Do thy best, to pluck this crawling serpent from my breast.

What a dream was here – Lysander look how I do quake with fear, methought a serpent ate my heart away, and you sat smiling at his cruel prey.

…those things do please me, that befall preposterously.

Since night you loved me, yet since night you left me.

Lord, what fools these mortals be

She was a vixen when she went to school, though she be little she is fierce.

…be thou here again, before the leviathan can swim a league…

…I’ll put a girdle around the earth in earth in forty minutes.

You minimis of hindering knot-grass…you acorn.

Shakespeare believed in individual uniqueness, in human rights and dignity, and in the universality of human consciousness.  His works cannot be captured by any cultural, religious, political, ethnic, or other identity group that divides people.  He is the supreme poet and dramatist of humanism; humanism as a belief system, and as a guide to how to live.

Shakespeare’s works elevate humanity beyond what it thinks itself capable of: “we know what we are, but not what we might be”.  He tells us things can get better – then leaves it up to us.

Shakespeare’s language is still modern English, but some words and phrases are unfamiliar, or their meanings have changed.  The No Fear Shakespeare website[1] gives you all his works with parallel translations into today’s easy to understand English.  Take Shakespeare to heart by reading his words quietly to yourself, and then read them aloud so you listen to yourself in Shakespeare’s words.  Memorise lines and scenes you especially like.  Refer to No Fear Shakespeare only when you don’t understand the meaning, and then go back to his original words.

There is no powerful human experience, emotion or relationship that Shakespeare does not shed light on and help you to understand better.  Throughout your life, in good and bad times, lines you think you’ve forgotten will come back to you.  They will also become more meaningful as your life changes, and you understand more.  You will find that Shakespeare is teaching you more.

You should value Shakespeare for such reasons as:

Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language

Shakespeare observed social psychology (human nature in action), and saw it so much more clearly than others that he had to invent new language to describe what he saw.

Shakespeare coined something like 1,700 English words, and much of the English language’s most memorable and commonly-used sayings, phrases and metaphors.  Phrases such as stalking horse, hobby horse, green-eyed monster…

Many Shakespeare lines have evolved: “the cat will mew and dog will have his day” becomes “every dog will have his day”.  The expression “weasel words” comes from the lines:

I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.

Few English-speaking people go a day without quoting Shakespeare, typically without realising it.  Expressions and sayings from Shakespeare include:

I shall be loved when I am lacked.

All that glisters is not gold.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk.

Out of the jaws of death.

The world’s mine oyster.

I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.

More sinned against than sinning.

The better part of valour is discretion.

In the end, truth will out.

The be all and end all

The mirror up to nature;

Nothing can come of nothing.

It is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

A little more than kin, and less than kind. –

Neither rhyme nor reason.

Trippingly on the tongue

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.

As mad as a March hare.

In my mind’s eye

There is no virtue like necessity

As dead as a door nail.

Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. –

Who alone suffers, suffers most in the mind.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

Cleft my heart in twain.

The apparel oft proclaims the man,

I must be cruel only to be kind.

When sorrows come, they come not as single spies but as whole battalions.

That was laid on with a trowel.

Shakespeare’s support for human rights and dignity

Shakespeare judged people as individuals, not on their race, ethnicity, wealth, status, family affiliation or gender.  He understood that individuality is almost infinitely variable, even within the same family – two of King Lear’s daughters are evil; one is an angel, and “good wombs have borne bad sons”.

Everyone is ultimately what they are: “I am that I am”, and no-one can really see truly inside someone else:

You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

Shakespeare tells us to stand up for our rights, even if we are outgunned:

The poor wren, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.

An excerpt of Sir Thomas More that Shakespeare wrote expresses sympathy for refugees, recognising their common humanity.

Shakespeare treats all with dignity.  He notices the servants, fools, shepherds and “rude mechanicals”.  He confers on them as well as on the great and mighty the power of his words.

Shakespeare saw how multi-faceted people can be.  We sympathise even with evil characters such as Claudius in Hamlet when we see them from different angles, or eavesdrop on them as they reflect on being trapped by circumstances or the consequences of past action.

Shakespeare notices the nondescript and invisible people ignored by the powerful. Shakespeare treated even his minor characters as worthy of his genius and his sympathy.  In The Tempest, although Caliban has sought to burn his books and kill him, Prospero says “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”.  Caliban draws from the innate dignity Prospero has helped foster within him, and his last words are “to seek for grace”.

Shakespeare’s worse characters degrade good people to overcome their own feelings of inferiority.  Shakespeare understood the consequences of humiliating people.

Iago in Othello feels slighted by being passed over for promotion.  Iago knows that a brazen lie, spoken with confidence, will often be believed, and this leads to tragedy.  In King Lear, Edmund’s dignity is violated by his branding as an “illegitimate” son.  “Fine word, ‘legitimate’ …Now, gods stand up for bastards!’  Only as he lies dying and reflects on the deaths of Goneril and Regan, who both desired him, does Edmund discover his humanity: “Some good I mean to do, despite of mine own nature”.

Shakespeare never stereotypes, and is not callous to individuals in his pursuit of higher causes.  Shakespeare is with his characters, and has an understanding and moral feeling for them.

Human individuality is infinite and people should not demean themselves by surrendering their individuality to groups.  Shakespeare understood that individuality is selfish and destructive unless it relates to one’s wider social connectedness.  “To one’s own self be true” is actually quite shallow advice.  After all, Hitler and Stalin were “true to themselves”.

Shakespeare portrayed mental health issues with empathy.  He acknowledges the stigma and ill-treatment associated with mental illness in Twelfth Night, but also sees mental disorders as deeply human, affecting both the dove Ophelia and the preternaturally intelligent and noble Prince Hamlet.  Hamlet pretends to be mad, perhaps becomes mad, but recovers his composure:

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

King Lear’s madness in the storm is depicted with love and sympathy:

Why, he was met even now As mad as the vex’d sea, singing aloud, Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow weeds, With harlocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo flow’rs, Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow In our sustaining corn.

Shakespeare is in his element portraying feigned madness, as in the “ravings” of Edgar when pretending to be a Tom o’Bedlam mad beggar:

Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch’d bridges…

Pillicock sat on Pillicock’s Hill.

Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipp’d from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish’d and imprison’d; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body, horse to ride, and weapons to wear… But mice and rats, and such small deer,have been Tom’s food for many a long year
Child Rowland to the dark tower came; His word was still Fie, foh, and fum! I smell the blood of a British man…

Be thy mouth or black or white, Tooth that poisons if it bite; Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim, Hound or spaniel, brach or lym, Bobtail tyke or trundle-tail- Tom will make them weep and wail; For, with throwing thus my head, Dogs leap the hatch, and all are fled

Shakespeare lived at a time of rising awareness of the New World and its possibilities.  In The Tempest, Miranda has been stranded on an island since three year’s old.  She sees a “primitive” in Caliban, yet also sees her father’s art and books, and then visitors from his former old world.  She comes to see the old world as new: “O wonder, how many good creatures are there here!  How beauteous mankind is!  O brave new world, that has such people in it!”

People are shaped by social norms and what is around them.  Edmund commands the murder of Cordelia because “men are as the time is”.  He obeys the social norms of the time, and does not see beyond them, until his last act of redemption.  In Corialanus, uncritical adherence to custom is criticized: “What custom wills, in all things should we do it, the dust on antique time would like unswept and mountainous error be too highly heaped for truth to o’verpeer”.

People can be objects of circumstances as well as the creators of them.  Macbeth does not begin as evil, and is a reluctant and morally-torn murderer.  However, once he has committed his first murder his character changes, and it becomes easier to kill again.  He then becomes an irredeemable monster who grows weary of the sun and of life itself; “this tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

The nature of the mind, emotions and human creativity

Shakespeare saw the mind as related to the brain, and not for example to an imaginary spirit world.

A core theme in Shakespeare is that poetry, love and madness are related, and are part of unbounded human imagination.  He saw that they come from people not from spirits, devils and witchcraft or cold rationality. “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact”.  He knew that imagination can misfire, people can see things that are not there: “…or in the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear”.

Shakespeare used devices such as staging scenes from a play within his plays, having characters disguise themselves, or pretend to be mad.  He makes his audience do much of the work by using their imaginations.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream some workers stage a play and make a mess of it.  One pretends to be a wall, another a lion, unconvincingly!  However the audience within “the play within a play” loves it, as they have used their imaginations to “create” for themselves a fine, entertaining play.  What they “see” is different to what is “the reality”, yet is just as real…  “The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream, magic potions see men and women fall in and out of love based on mistaken identities, including a lady falling in love with a man turned into an ass.  In As you like it, genders are muddled, men and women fall in love with illusions, with the deeper irony that in Shakespeare’s time boy actors played the female parts.

Life as acting and drama

Shakespeare’s life was poetry and above all drama on the stage.  He saw the stage as life itself:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms; Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lin’d, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.

People are actors, play different roles, and shift between different identities in life.  This is why we should not encourage people to confine themselves to one dominant role such as ethnic, religious identity.  Acting also requires an audience and others on the stage – life is inherently social.  Shakespeare almost certainly began professional life as an actor.  Hamlet says of visiting actors:

Let them be well us’d; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.

Hamlet then watches a play within a play:

O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit … And all for nothing! For Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, … He would drown the stage with tears …The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King

The play that is life can also have its weepy moments:

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.

Shakespeare’s last play[2] reflects on acting and its effects on the imagination:

These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air…We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.

And at the play’s end, Prospero’s farewell to the audience, and perhaps Shakespeare’s goodbye to the stage:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, I must be here confined by you, Or sent to Naples. Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands: Gentle breath of yours my sails Must fill, or else my project fails, Which was to please. Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.

Shakespeare’s stimulation of others’ creativity

Shakespeare’s works inspired many other creative contributions, including art, music, poetry and novels.  Romeo and Juliet inspired West Side Story, and Taming of the Shrew, Kiss me Katie.  The Tempest alone inspired around 37 operas.  Countless novels from Dogs of War, Brave New World, Owls do Cry to Pale Fire take their titles from Shakespeare lines.

The rising power of the internet and multi-media mean that Shakespeare’s works, and the works he has inspired will continue to trigger more creative achievements, and these in turn will spawn others in an unbounded way.  This reflects and helps to drive ever-lasting creative achievement in literature, music and other arts.

His inspiration for you when things go wrong

Shakespeare’s mind roamed so freely that anyone immersed in his work can think of Shakespeare scenes or quotes that provide insight into all major events and emotions in their lives.  These insights can answer questions, or give you another way of thinking.  They may help you see you are not alone, that others have faced similar problems and got through them.  They also allow you to see yourself from outside, as if you are observing another person.

Shakespeare is inspiring when things go wrong.  When you are out of luck and a social outcast, read sonnet 29[3] and realise that Shakespeare too was once at the bottom, and rose from it to touch the stars.  When you look back, angry and bitter at bad things that have happened in the past that you can’t forget, turn to sonnet 30.  When annoyed by criticism or by shallow, insincere flattery, sonnet 112.  When disgusted by others’ bad behaviour, sonnet 66.  When you are depressed for no good reason, remember it’s not real and it’s all in your head: “there is nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so”.

Shakespeare also makes clear that suicide is never acceptable:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

…To be, or not to be- that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

… To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub! For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

…. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office… But that the dread of something after death- The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn No traveller returns- puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of…
Shakespeare knew that sometimes we have to accept that bad things happen, even to the best people such as Cordelia:

We are not the first Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst.

When you have to act quickly and only you can do so, know that “the time is out of joint, Oh cursed spite, that I was born to set it right.”


Shakespeare is the supreme poet of love, with its complexity, power, its focus on the bond between unique individuals that overrides all else, its ineffability, its immunity to other’s understanding, and its relationship with the mind’s imaginative powers.

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

Love can turn tragic, as in Romeo and Juliet from which we draw some famous lines:

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.

But soft what light through yonder window breaks, it is the East and Juliet is the sun…

O Romeo, Romeo, where art thou Romeo?

Take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night.

Death, that have sucked the honey of thy breath.

…parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow. –

Shakespeare can also be pragmatic and not allow love or its loss to consume all: “no one ever died for love”.  Sonnet 30 sees Shakespeare brooding over the past, even over things that should be long forgotten, such as “love’s long since cancelled woe”, overcoming past sad times by thinking of someone he cares for:

Then a while when I think of thee, dear friend, all losses are restored and sorrows end.

Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are his most heart-felt personal statements and may not even have been intended for publication.  Most of them are love poems that capture how his feelings for the one he loves free him from despair, anger with things that have happened in the past, sadness, cynicism, fear of death or world-weariness.

For Shakespeare, “love is not love when it alters when it alteration finds’.  In sonnet 124, his love is immune from short-term political conniving, and he contrasts this with those who die repentant having spent their lives being sinful:

It fears not policy, that heretic, Which works on leases of short-number’d hours, But all alone stands hugely politic, That it nor grows with heat nor drowns with showers. To this I witness call the fools of time, Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime

His love and his expression of it in verse out-lives marble and gilded monuments of princes (sonnet 55) and tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass (sonnet 107).

For Shakespeare, “music was the food of love”, and love inspired music:

It was a lover and his lass

Shakespeare knew that love could be puzzling, that it sometimes passed with youth, but it should be embraced when it is there.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter; Present mirth hath present laughter; What’s to come is still unsure: In delay there lies no plenty; Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty, Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

He warned that love often brought all kinds of trouble with it:

Lysander: Ay me! for aught that I could ever read, Could ever hear by tale or history, The course of true love never did run smooth; But, either it was different in blood,—

Hermia: O cross! too high to be enthrall’d to low.

Lysander: Or else misgraffed in respect of years,—

Hermia: O spite! too old to be engaged to young.

Lysander: Or else it stood upon the choice of friends,—

Hermia: O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes.

Lysander. Or, if there were a sympathy in choice, War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it, Making it momentany as a sound, Swift as a shadow, short as any dream; Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, And ere a man hath power to say ‘Behold!’ The jaws of darkness do devour it up: So quick bright things come to confusion

Polonius in Hamlet, intercepts a love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia:

Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love. ‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans; but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu. ‘Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, HAMLET.’

Relationships between children and parents

Shakespeare understood the power of love between children and parents.  He captured the poignancy of the love between the elderly King Lear and the daughter he had banished and become reconciled with:

Cordelia: O my dear father, restoration hang Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss Repair those violent harms that my two sisters Have in thy reverence made!

Lear: You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave. Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead…

I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man; Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant What place this is; and all the skill I have Remembers not these garments; nor I know not Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me; For (as I am a man) I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.

Cordelia: And so I am! I am!

Lear: If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong. You have some cause, they have not.

Cordelia: No cause, no cause.

Shakespeare on friendship

Shakespeare’s plays are full of close friendships, and the role they play in good times, in advice and counsel, and in helping in times of need.  He understood the difference between friends you could rely on, and those you couldn’t:

Every one that flatters thee Is no friend in misery. Words are easy, like the wind; Faithful friends are hard to find:

He that is thy friend indeed, He will help thee in thy need: If thou sorrow, he will weep; If thou wake, he cannot sleep; Thus of every grief in heart He with thee doth bear a part. These are certain signs to know Faithful friend from flattering foe

Overcoming fear of mortality

Shakespeare lived in a time of high infant mortality within large families, and much lower life expectancy due to illnesses that in many cases can now be treated.  Many of his sonnets and plays are concerned with overcoming mortality, by having children, creating great immortal art, affecting other people positively, or through a life narrative or reputation that survives you.

The fact that you are reading this tells you that Shakespeare is immortal, and is still with us, that people affect each other and the future in all kinds of ways that live beyond us.

Who tried to censor Shakespeare?

Shakespeare has been pilloried, censored or banned for centuries, and for all kinds of reasons.  These include ignoring prevailing moral codes, atheistic tendencies, contempt for inherited privilege, internationalism, disparagement of identity politics, exposing the shallow nature of kingly power, promotion of market trade, usury, suspected grain-hoarding, lack of a class angle or socialist realism, unpatriotic sentiments, portraying black people and continentals in too favourable a light, and promotion of teenage sex, homoeroticism and cross-dressing.

The common grievances all censors, banners and book burners have with Shakespeare are his humanism, the unbounded nature of his intellect, his love of life, and belief in human potential.  There is also jealousy from minds inferior to Shakespeare’s.  Shakespeare in his plays often exposed tendencies by the mean-spirited to drag others down.

The common aim of those who censored or banned Shakespeare has been to limit human consciousness as revealed and expanded in Shakespeare, in order to promote narrow moral, religious, nationalistic, cultural or racial codes or world views, or simply for small-mindedness itself.

What Shakespeare admired and despised

Shakespeare valued honesty, integrity and loyalty. In sonnet 25, beauty is truly beautiful when it comes with honesty and integrity. Sonnet 105 encapsulates Shakespeare’s view of an ideal lover; someone who is “fair, kind and true”.  Cordelia is “so young my lord, and true”.  Rosalind and Celia, Orlando and Adam are loyal to each other, without instrumentality or likely reward.  Kent and the Fool are loyal to King Lear, at risk to their own lives.

Shakespeare did not elevate intelligence above human character, concern for others and honesty:

No legacy is so rich as honesty.

Iago and Edmund are intelligent, and evil.  They easily outwit more admirable characters such as Othello, Cassio and Edgar. The fool in King Lear has the emotional intelligence to realise things will end badly when Cordelia is banished from the kingdom.  He pines away when Cordelia has left, feeling early what others cannot see.

Corin in As you like it, the old shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, and the servants in King Lear are of kindness and character.  Rosalind in As you like it needs composure, self-regulation, prudence and agility as well as her intellect to survive in the Forest of Arden.

Shakespeare saw love between individuals as something that survived time and shallowness.  In sonnet 18 it lasts “as long lives this and this gives life to thee”.

Shakespeare also knew that the mind can play tricks.  Psychology can misfire, and romantic love can distort judgement or stumble over the tedium of domestic life.

For Shakespeare, the worse sins are cruelty, deception and flattery. Shakespeare values compassion and despises its absence in Goneril, Regan and Iago.  It is often the humble people who are most horrified by cruelty, such as the servants who are disgusted by Cornwall and Goneril in King Lear.

Shakespeare despised superficiality, insincerity, and “dwellers on form and favour.”  Ophelia in her “madness” gives fennel, signifying flattery to Claudius.  Goneril and Regan flatter Lear, and Cordelia is banished for she lacks that “glib and oily art to speak and purpose not” and cannot heave her loving heart into her mouth.  She says:

Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness.

Lear bitterly reflects on his two oldest daughters:

They flatter’d me like a dog, and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. To say ‘ay’ and ‘no’ to everything I said! ‘Ay’ and ‘no’ too was no good divinity. When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to, they are not men o’ their words! They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie- I am not ague-proof.

Shakespeare despised fair weather friends:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain, And follows but for form, Will pack when it begins to rain and leave thee in a storm But I will tarry; the fool will stay, And let the wise man fly.

Power and governance

In Shakespeare, the cream does not always rise.  “Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall”.  It is often the power-hungry and sociopaths who seize power, and the humble people who hold them to account.

Shakespeare did not believe in mob rule.  He was a man of order, and a constitutionalist.  He was acutely aware of how disorder can bring out the worst in people.  In Julius Caesar and Corialanus he sees how crowds can be gullible, easily swayed, capricious, and subject to mass neuroses.

Shakespeare was nuanced enough to understand that pacifism can invite attack, and that some good people shed blood, including their own.  There are few pure angels or devils in his works.  People have reasons for what they do.

Some of the deepest humanism in Shakespeare comes from simple people who stand up against personal malignity, for no reward, and at risk to their lives.  It is a servant who comes to the defence of Gloucester when he is being maimed by Cornwall, dying as a result.  Another servant understands the corrupt effects of top leaders such as Cornwall being vicious psychopaths: “I’ll never care what wickedness I do if this man comes to good”. A servant says of Goneril: “If she live long, and in the end meet the old course of death, women will all turn monsters”.

Later on in King Lear, Regan realizes that good people are horrified by cruelty, and rues letting the blinded Gloucester “smell his way to Dover” for “where he arrives he moves all hearts against us”.

Shakespeare’s histories are often extended narratives on the creation of order, perhaps through successions of rulers, and often involving unethical behaviour.  Henry IV tells his son and future successor: “God knows, my son, by what by-paths and indirect crook’d way I met this Crown.”

Richard 111 is written for an audience within a power structure that wanted to brand the king as an evil tyrant.  Shakespeare plays to the gallery, but often parodies the narrative.  Richard 111 was born with teeth fully formed in his mouth!

Shakespeare recognises the importance of the “genuine authority” that Kent saw in King Lear.  Shakespeare attacked illegitimate and unconstitutional power achieved through murder in Macbeth, Richard 111 and Hamlet. In King John “there is no sure foundation set on blood, no certain life achieved by other’s death”.

Lear finds that his evil daughters and their followers do not respect him but only his kingly power, and when he gives this away he no longer has authority.  Order then breaks down, and is only restored at the end of the play by those who respect constitutionality and reestablish it over the dead bodies of those who have destroyed Lear, Cordelia, and the fool.

In King Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Edmund and Oswald live in accord with savage law.  The good characters are fools, have blind spots, or refuse to flatter and connive.  However, they have the affiliations, affinities and truth that make people highly developed humans and make civilized life possible.  Albany himself is disgusted with his brother-in-law, Cornwall.  He says if there is no punishment for Cornwall “humanity must perforce prey on itself.”  He then sees the black heart of his own wife Goneril, and turns against her.

Shakespeare, his father, and no doubt others in his social circle were often victims of petty tyranny, hierarchal privilege, imperiousness or mendacious use of the law.  Hamlet reflects on the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the law’s delay and the insolence of office.  In Shakespeare’s late play, Cymbeline, death is seen as a liberation from the tyrant’s stroke:

Guiderius: Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Nor the furious winter’s rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages: Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Arviragus: Fear no more the frown o’ the great; Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke; Care no more to clothe and eat; To thee the reed is as the oak: The sceptre, learning, physic, must All follow this, and come to dust.

Guiderius: Fear no more the lightning flash,

Arviragus: Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;

Guiderius: Fear not slander, censure rash;

Arviragus: Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:

Guiderius: All lovers young, all lovers must Consign to thee, and come to dust.

Guiderius: No exorciser harm thee!

Arviragus: Nor no witchcraft charm thee!

Guiderius: Ghost unlaid forbear thee!

Arviragus: Nothing ill come near thee!

Guiderius: Quiet consummation have; And renowned be thy grave!

Economics and economic justice

William Shakespeare was good with money and property, believed in trade, a market economy and strong property rights.  He saw the relation of these things to liberties, human rights, self-determination and artistic freedom.  Shakespeare saw the relationship between property and power.

In Shakespeare’s time, a merchant class was emerging from feudalism.  It was supported by new forms of property right, including those over such abstractions as loans and creative works.  Shakespeare’s own father had been accused of usury (charging excessive interest), and this is a theme in Merchant of Venice.  The bard himself understood the time value of money and the need for a premium for risk.

You can imagine Shakespeare as a salesman:

Lawn as white as driven snow; Cyprus black as e’er was crow; Gloves as sweet as damask roses; Masks for faces and for noses; … Come buy of me, come; come buy, come buy; Buy lads, or else your lasses cry: Come buy.

In the mediaeval times that preceded Shakespeare, the major barriers to human advancement were lack of tradeable property rights, of open markets and of trade betterment.  In Shakespeare’s own time hierarchy unrelated to merit was the biggest barrier to betterment.

Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker and merchant and his mother a prosperous farmer’s daughter.  Shakespeare came from a rising but still insecure middle class which wanted to do better, and which was constrained and in some cases threatened by both privileged hierarchies and by poorer people jealous of success.

Shakespeare was fascinated by the cultural and economic achievements on the continent, especially in the Italian city-states which were settings for some of his plays.  The Renaissance had begun in Florence in the 14th century.  It was in Italy that the modern banking system emerged, and trade betterment gained the momentum that would over time drive economic growth and rising per capita incomes throughout the western world.   Shakespeare mandated commerce, trade, and a justice system that enforced contracts.

There are more trading states than castles in Shakespeare, and he saw that trade betterment through market exchange needed individual rights as well as prosperity.

Shakespeare saw money as a means to an end, not a higher human value or a substitute for the person herself.  “Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor…”

He understood how poverty often compromised behaviour.  In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo buys poison from a reluctant apothecary (pharmacist):

Romeo: I see that though art poor.  Hold, there is forty ducats….Art though so bare and full of wretchedness and fearest to die?  Famine is in thy cheeks, need and oppression starveth in thine eyes, contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back.  The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law; the world affords no law to make thee rich; then be not poor, but break it and take this.

Apothecary: My poverty but not my will consents.

Romeo: I pay thy poverty and not thy will…There is thy gold – worse poison for men’s souls, doing more murther in this loathsome world, than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.  I sell thee poison; thou has sold me none.  Farewell.  Buy food and get thyself in flesh.

Shakespeare sees how money can be used to gloss over bad character: “O what a world of vile, ill-favoured faults looks handsome on three hundred pounds a year”.  He sees how it can: “place thieves and give them title, knee and approbation, with senators on the bench”.

In Shakespeare’s time, scientific and rational ways of thinking were challenging religion.  This was supported by rising capabilities in measurement, of time and money and of people’s lives, and the quantification underlying trade and the betterment it created for people.  Forms and symbols of quantitative measurement abound in Shakespeare, typically with multiple meanings.  Coins are associated with men’s character and mettle, in King Lear love is divisible by thirds and Cordelia’s “price has fallen”.  In Macbeth, Shakespeare characterises time as linear, sequential, grammatical and physically moving:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time…
Shakespeare did not confuse kindness and decency at the individual level with abstract political or religious causes.  He was no socialist.  Shakespeare in Corialanus satirizes the credulity of the public masses understanding of economics: “let’s kill him and we will have corn at our own price”.

Shakespeare spoofs the political logic, consistency and denial of agency of those who banished Corialanus: “….though we willingly consented to his banishment it was against our will…”

Public uprisings, overthrows of government and referenda can blow back and harm the very people who supported them.

Shakespeare moved to London to make his money by combining different words in new ways.  He retired to Stratford-on-Avon to invest in houses, farmland and other tangible properties.  He was successful because he was able to trade in markets that rewarded his talents.  His humanism and feeling for the poor was reflected in his will.  However, his mindfulness of poverty came through most strongly in works such as King Lear.

The banished aristocrat Edgar escapes with his life, disguising himself as a Bedlam beggar[4].

To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt of man, Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth, Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots, And with presented nakedness outface The winds and persecutions of the sky. The country gives me proof and precedent Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices, Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary; And with this horrible object, from low farms, Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills, Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers, Enforce their charity. ‘Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!’ That’s something yet! Edgar I nothing am

As so often in the topsy-turvy world of King Lear, it is the fool’s commentary which is the wisest and least foolish:

Fathers that wear rags Do make their children blind; But fathers that bear bags Shall see their children kind. Fortune, that arrant whore, Ne’er turns the key to the poor

King Lear shows compassion to the poor only after his fall into poverty and dissolution.  Reduced to destitution he sees for the first time the wretched poverty of his former subjects, and feels compassion for them.  Approaching a hovel he tells his fool:

In, boy; go first.- You houseless poverty… Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel…
Lear understands others through affinity with the suffering of those in the “poor, pelting villages”.  Shakespeare understood that an economy must ultimately deliver acceptable outcomes for the poor if it is to support a good society.

Cordelia reflects on what he has been through when Lear is rescued from being an outcast in the storm:

Was this a face

To be opposed against the warring winds?

To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder

In the most terrible and nimble stroke

Of quick cross lightning? … Mine enemy’s meanest dog,

Though he had bit me, should have stood that night

Against my fire. And wast thou fain, poor father,

To hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn

In short and musty straw


Nature of justice

Shakespeare understood that life was not a morality tale, that good did not triumph in every instance, and that there was no inevitable justice.

Shakespeare understood that justice is a human creation.  As such it is flawed, but better even with its imperfections than no law, or the law of the jungle.   Shakespeare felt injustice at times in his life, and he also defended his legal rights in disputes with others.  King Lear in his “madness” sees the potential for hypocrisy within a justice system:

Lear: See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?

Gloucester:  Ay, sir.

Lear: And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office… Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it. … Get thee glass eyes And, like a scurvy politician, seem To see the things thou dost not.

Measure for Measure contrasts large-minded and small-minded justice, while Portia in the Merchant of Venice sees mercy as integral to it:

Portia:. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Witchcraft, astrology, predestination, luck and magical thinking

Shakespeare did not believe in ghosts or witchcraft but drew on it for its dramatic effects.  From Hamlet:

‘Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world.

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

But that I am forbid To tell the secrets of my prison house, I could a tale unfold whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, Thy knotted and combined locks to part, And each particular hair to stand on end Like quills upon the fretful porcupine…

‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abus’d. But know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown…

Fare thee well at once. The glowworm shows the matin to be near And gins to pale his uneffectual fire. Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.

And from Macbeth:

First witch: When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second witch: When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.

A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap, And munch’d, and munch’d, and munch’d:— ‘Give me,’ quoth I: ‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries. Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger: But in a sieve I’ll thither sail, And, like a rat without a tail, I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

And the very ports they blow, All the quarters that they know … Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tost…

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble…

Shakespeare challenged astrology, predetermination and magical thinking that denied people’s individual responsibility.  In sonnet 14 he writes: “not from the stars do I my judgement pluck”.  Helena says in All’s well that ends well: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie which we ascribe to heaven”.  Julius Caesar tells Brutus: “Men at some time are master of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Edmund in King Lear listens to his father Gloucester attributing human discord to mysterious forces and higher powers.  He soliloquises:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.

An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing

Free thinking

Shakespeare understood the risks of speaking truth to people in power.  Kent stands up to the imperious King Lear, defends Cordelia, and is banished.  Kent is the model of a high integrity public servant.

Relationships based on gratitude cannot be relied on, any more than King Lear could buy loyalty by giving away his lands.   People, especially the vulnerable, must take care of themselves, and not depend on others for protection.

The strongest characters in Shakespeare are individuals who think for themselves, who refuse to adopt uncritically the views of others, who see things as they are and stand up for themselves.  They do what it takes to survive in a harsh world.

Humanism and human potential

William Shakespeare is the poet, dramatist, psychology and philosopher of the humanist world view.  He is above cultures and above race.  At the heart of his humanism is the dignity of individuals, their individuality and autonomy, human capacity to love, and the power of human imagination. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

Language, music, and high culture

Shakespeare understood that language, music and high culture are what distinguishes humanity from base nature.

Music is the soul of love, and is integral to such plays as As you like it and The Tempest.  Cordelia and a doctor use music to try and restore Lear to health.  Shakespeare distrusts action men who have no time for music and poetry and creations of the higher mind.  Julius Caesar mistrusts Cassius’s “lean and hungry look” (would he were fatter!), for thinking too much: “he reads much, looks through the deeds of men, loves no plays, hears no music… Such men as he be never at heart’s ease whiles they behold a greater than themselves and therefore are they very dangerous”.

The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night And his affections dark as Erebus:

Shakespeare’s love for music even permeates plays unrelated to it, such as Merchant of Venice[5].

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony. Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold: There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st But in his motion like an angel sings…,
While Shakespeare loved folk music, he also parodied its overly fantastic flourishes:

Here’s another ballad of a fish, that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the four-score of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids.


Shakespeare was influenced by Christian culture, yet his world view was secular and humanistic.  He was deeply sceptical of the integrity of priests and others who claimed to be God’s representatives on earth:

When priests are more in word than matter; When brewers mar their malt with water; When nobles are their tailors’ tutors, No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors; When every case in law is right, No squire in debt nor no poor knight; When slanders do not live in tongues, Nor cutpurses come not to throngs; When usurers tell their gold i’ th’ field, And bawds and whores do churches build: Then shall the realm of Albion Come to great confusion… This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time

King Lear’s deep current of irreligious thought and scepticism is set in pre-Christian times, and Lear and the fool in a dream-like conversation ask whether something can come from nothing, distantly challenging the Genesis account of creation.

Shakespeare understood that religion can be used for evil purposes:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

There is a sense in Shakespeare that things can and will move on and will get better.  This theme is reflected in sonnet 32 where Shakespeare imagines his lover outliving him, that future poets will exceed Shakespeare’s heights, but that this will not take away from the love Shakespeare had while he lived.  His lover who outlives him can admire another living poet for his achievement, and Shakespeare for his love…

Tragedies such as King Lear are incompatible with a belief in God or in divine justice.  The gods are appealed to in King Lear; all of them are silent.

O you mighty gods,

This world I do renounce, and in your sights

Shake patiently my great affliction off.

If I could bear it longer and not fall

To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,

My snuff and loathèd part of nature should

Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!


Ophelia responds to Laertes’ cautions about her relationship with Hamlet:

But, good my brother,do not as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede.


Ophelia is victimised by hypocritical and life-denying religion even after her death. The priest minimises the rites for Ophelia’s funeral.  She is given a Christian burial against the priest’s objections that her death was a suspected suicide, and therefore should condemn her to lie in unsanctified ground.

However, Shakespeare acknowledged his Christian cultural heritage in his will.


Shakespeare was acutely conscious of the stages of life, how different ages face different challenges, and that we must enjoy life when we have it:

When that I was and a little tiny boy, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, A foolish thing was but a toy, For the rain it raineth every day. But when I came to man’s estate, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, ‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate, For the rain it raineth every day But when I came, alas! to wive, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain By swaggering could I never thrive, For the rain, it raineth every day But when I came unto my beds, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain With toss-pots still had drunken heads, For the rain, it raineth every day A great while ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain But that’s all one, our play is done, And we’ll strive to please you every day.

He understood that teenage years were difficult ones:

I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting—

King Lear is partly about despised old age.  Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund see old people’s existence as a burden on themselves, “the old must give way to the young”.  They hunger to inherit Lear and Gloucester’s property and power.  “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it had its head bit off by its young.”

King Lear himself satirises his two older daughters’ contempt for him:

Dear daughter, I confess that I am old.  Age is unnecessary.  On my knees I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.


“Ingratitude, that marble-hearted fiend.”  “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child”.  King Lear ends:

The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest have borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Elderly people may give away their property to their children, only to find their children suddenly lose interest in them, or even secretly hope they pass away. This is a timeless issue.

Shakespeare brought out some of the best in humanity in those such as Cordelia, Edgar and Orlando (in As you like it) whose love and fidelity to elderly relatives or servants was ineffable but truer and less instrumentalist than those with the “oily arts” of the Gonerils and Regans.

Family tyrannies, both internal and between families

Shakespeare’s plays are full of authoritarian parents, especially fathers, tyrannising their children.  Desdemona in Othello, Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Cordelia in King Lear are all bullied or threatened with death or banishment if they marry someone they love, refuse to marry someone they don’t love, or fail to give all their love to an imperious parent, even at the expense of reserving at least some love for a future husband.  Desdemona is a victim of her father and husband.

Romeo and Juliet is of course the supreme indictment of the tyranny of feuds between families and branding through a family name: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Gender issues

Hamlet, driven up the wall by his mother Gertrude, says “frailty thy name is women.”  However, Shakespeare himself has extraordinary sympathy with female characters.  They are often the most powerful and intelligent people such as Rosalind and Viola, or those with the purest, deepest character such as Cordelia.

Rosalind is at Hamlet’s intellectual level, but has far more self-control.  She sustains her strong self and character while disguised as someone else, parlays a weak hand of cards into a winning one, and gets the last words in, in the epilogue where she looks the audience in the eye.  Interestingly, Celia in As you like it is the only character who maintains her autonomy from Rosalind, while also being her great friend and forest sister.  Celia is the one person Rosalind cannot command.

Rosalind is also very down to earth.  She is in love but will not die for love, she is in control of her own self, not maddened by the teeming brain of lovers.  She cures a youth of puppy love:

…full of tears, full of smiles…would now like him, now loathe him, then entertain him, then forswear him, now weep for him, then spit at him…to forswear the full stream of the world and to live in a nook merely monastic…


Even in the superficially patriarchal play Taming of the Shrew, Katie is really in control, while feigning subservience.

That Shakespeare was passionate about women is clear, and he fathered the first of his three children out of wedlock at age eighteen.  However some of his sonnets are addressed to one or more men, whether as patronage or authentic love.  He may have been bisexual, and arguably there is a homoerotic theme in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in Merchant of Venice.

Racism and cultural identity politics

Othello is a deeply anti-racist play.

It was banned in Nazi Germany and in some southern US states, at least where Othello was played by a black actor.  In Merchant of Venice, Launcelot the servant is expected to make an honest woman out of the black girl he has gotten pregnant, and the black Morocco is a credible suitor for Portia.  In contrast the racist Gratiano is portrayed as venal and corrupt.

Shylock is portrayed with humanity and sympathy:

Shylock: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? …If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Nationalism and group identity politics

Shakespeare always put individuals and relationships between them as paramount in his works, and never put political theories, national, racial or cultural pride ahead of them.

Hamlet is a man alone facing a tyrannous rule and consumed by the need for a just revenge against one murderer.  He contrasts this with an invading army where thousands may die purely for a worthless symbol:

Witness this army of such mass and charge, Led by a delicate and tender prince, Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d, Makes mouths at the invisible event, Exposing what is mortal and unsure To all that fortune, death, and danger dare, Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great Is not to stir without great argument, But greatly to find quarrel in a straw … to my shame I see The imminent death of twenty thousand men That for a fantasy and trick of fame Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain?

Plays such as King John, Richard 11 and Henry V include some fine rhetoric that seems admirably patriotic at first blush.  England in Richard 11 is “this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle…” In King John: “Nought shall make us rue, if England to itself do rest but true.”

Shakespeare’s historical plays such as Henry V are full of heroic speech.  “The youth of England are on fire…they sell that pasture now to buy the horse…”Tomorrow is Saint Crispian day … we few, we happy few” are portrayed as lucky because honour and glory are a fixed quantity and so the fewer there are the more honour and glory they get!

However, in King Lear, the French army are on the “good side” and the British on the “bad side”.  Shakespeare’s Henriad plays are subtle attacks on nationalism and its relationship to abuse of political power.  Henry V is an ironic attack on megalomaniacal state power. Henry V threatens a French town’s inhabitants with mass murder if they do not surrender.  French prisoners are massacred.  Shakespeare exposes the evil of war and deflates its “heroism”.

A key device in exposing nationalism’s dark underbelly is Falstaff, a larger than life, drinking and womanizing hedonist.  Falstaff teaches us not to moralise.  Lear laments his age while Falstaff transcends it.

In Henry IV part 1, Falstaff is told that he “owest God a death” and should die with honour.  Falstaff replies:

What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.



Shakespeare hates the “churlish knot of all-abhorred war…contumelieous, beastly, mad-brained war”.  Shakespeare’s military figures are typically deeply flawed and come to bad ends.  In Troilus and Cressida Greek classical heroes are shown in an unflattering, unheroic and unvirtuous light.  Heroes such as Edgar and Hamlet only take up arms reluctantly.

In Henry 1V Part two King Henry warns his son Hal he may have to pursue foreign quarrels to protect himself against civil strife. “…be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels…”  At the end of the play Hal rejects Falstaff so he can become a serious-minded, war-mongering monarch.

Despite the bombast of “once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead” Shakespeare does not gloss over the horror of war. At the end of Henry V the audience is reminded that “they lost France and made his England bleed”.

Aristocratic privilege, bloodline and inheritance

Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies show kings, nobles and other aristocrats in a human and often unflattering light.  While individuals can murder other individuals, only people in positions of great power can do harm on a mass scale.  There are kings and aristocrats who murder their way into power – Richard 111, Macbeth and Claudius.  Others can lose their power, lands, sanity and lives through imperiousness and vanity (Lear).

Above all, kings and aristocrats are shown in Shakespeare not as having divine rights but as flawed human beings who make mistakes, can be ineffectual, mad, outsmarted, misunderstand things, have fatal flaws or behave capriciously, irrationally or with bad intent.

The histories and tragedies eroded the distance between the human and royalty.   They removed the artifice and the divine justification for power and its aura of invincibility.  They paved the way for the English revolution.

False pride and spurious and shallow honour and show of appearances

Shakespeare attacked pride, spurious and shallow honour displays and shows of appearances: “Small things make base men proud”.

The world is still deceived with ornament. In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt, But, being seasoned with a gracious voice, Obscures the show of evil? In religion, What damned error, but some sober brow Will bless it and approve it with a text, Hiding the grossness with fair ornament? There is no vice so simple but assumes Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:

In sonnet 25 Shakespeare notes that those patronized by the aristocracy, and famous warriors with honour and privilege are all vulnerable to having these baubles stripped away.  In sonnet 91 Shakespeare shows how people can be proud of the wrong things – wealth, inherited social status, clothes, hawks, hounds and horses.  Sonnet 125 disparages those who favour appearances and covet powerful people’s favours.

In the history plays Hotspur is in love with honour, Falstaff with wine and womanizing.  Pistol, Nim and boy in Henry V comment cynically on honour, militarism and conflict.  They are characters who are happy to trade off the chance of fame for a mug of beer, and safety.

Insecurity of power and greatness

A powerful theme in Shakespeare is how everyone is human, and that death conquers and levels all, the beggars and kings.  In Hamlet, “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away”.

Richard 11 in a meditative moment reflects upon the underlying human frailty even of kings:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings; … I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?

Henry V reflects that, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.

Political tyrannies

Shakespeare as a humanist was deeply suspicious of power that comes from inheritance and ambition for power.

Shakespeare’s plays often contrast power-hunger and the destruction it unleashes with humble, sane people ordering their lives around their family, friends, their loves and there making a living.   Shakespeare celebrates those “who doth ambition shun and love to live in the sun”, and woodland fellows “that always loved a great fire.”

Such people, and sometimes nature itself constitute the real world rather than a political fantasy world.  The porter scene in Macbeth is the only humorous scene and the only one where sane, balanced humanity is represented in a world of vaulting ambition, murder, witchcraft and power struggles.

Shakespeare’s attacks on tyranny are enduring and everlasting and take new forms as new tyrannies emerge.  This is reflected in the fate of Shakespeare’s works in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Russian writers were long the conscience and abstract chronicles of that long-suffering nation, embodied its soul, and were often in the forefront of challenges to tyranny.

During the 1940 blitz when the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany, Anna Ahkmatova telegraphed which side Russia’s literati were on in To the Londoners.

As George Orwell revealed in his essay Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool[6], Tolstoy could never abide Shakespeare’s unbounded love of life and wideness of mind, refusal to agonise over his soul and over death, and his exposure of hypocrisy.  Above all, he never forgave Shakespeare for the lessons from King Lear: if you give away your money and power as a way of getting an indirect advantage for yourself, don’t be surprised if others play by different rules and you live to regret it.  Loyalty to family does not always exist, especially with “pelican daughters” such as Goneril and Regan.

Stalin hated Hamlet, ostensibly because “Hamlet’s indecisiveness and depression were incompatible with the new Soviet spirit of optimism, fortitude, and clarity”.  Stalin banned Hamlet from 1941 till his death.  The great Soviet theatre director, Meyerhold was obsessed with Hamlet and had plans to stage it.  He was murdered by Stalin’s secret police and his wife stabbed to death.

Hamlet was too close to the bone for Stalin. Like Claudius, Stalin had murdered for power.   He believed the ends justified the means.  Shakespeare never believed that individual dignity, rights and lives should be sacrificed for some collectivist mass project or delusion.  Hamlet was a highly intelligent, sceptical observer who was close to power, and just a sword stroke away from the head of state…

Hamlet retains his autonomy in the midst of a tyranny, and this is dangerous to an autocrat: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer…The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them..”


In Shakespeare’s England, except in London and a few larger towns, people lived close to and as part of nature.  He loves the “cuckoo buds of yellow hue that paint the meadows with delight[7]”, the owls’ ‘tu-whit too whoo’, the icicles hanging by the wall, as Tom drags logs into the hall…

In places his works shows an awe of the stars and night sky, but his love for nature is mainly expressed through man living in and with nature, in farms, “poor pelting villages”, in the forest of Arden where there are books in brooks and words in streams and poems on trees… Shakespeare alludes to herbal remedies, and to the use of egg white and cobwebs for their antiseptic or healing properties.

Shakespeare delighted in nature, the colours, dynamism, plants and what they connoted, birds, their calls and animals.  So much of his love involved people interwoven in and interacting with nature, the “shepherds piping on oaten straws” and “merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks”:

Where the bee sucks. there suck I: In a cowslip’s bell I lie; There I couch when owls do cry. On the bat’s back I do fly After summer merrily.
He did not see nature as separate from people:

Ceres, most bounteous lady, thy rich leas Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and pease; Thy turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep, And flat meads thatch’d with stover, them to keep; Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims, Which spongy April at thy hest betrims, To make cold nymphs chaste crowns; and thy broom -groves, Whose shadow the dismissed bachelor loves,

He was the supreme poet of man as part of nature, drawing meaning from what plants stood for and what birds’ songs meant, and how nature’s storms and cold felt for people.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy world transcends human brick and mortar existence and merges with a magical world where plants and insects live their own lives to be admired in themselves and as they relate to human needs for medicines, for wonder, for lighted candles, for peaceful children, and for sheer delight:

Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue’s sweet air More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear, When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
The contending world of humans and spirits are intertwined:

Puck: How now, spirit! whither wander you?

Fairy: Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, Over park, over pale, Thorough flood, thorough fire, I do wander everywhere, Swifter than the moon’s sphere; And I serve the fairy queen, To dew her orbs upon the green. The cowslips tall her pensioners be: In their gold coats spots you see; Those be rubies, fairy favours, In those freckles live their savours: I must go seek some dewdrops here And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear. Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone: Our queen and all our elves come here anon.

Puck: The king doth keep his revels here to-night: Take heed the queen come not within his sight; For Oberon is passing fell and wrath, Because that she as her attendant hath A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; She never had so sweet a changeling; And jealous Oberon would have the child Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild; But she perforce withholds the loved boy, Crowns him with flowers and makes him all her joy: And now they never meet in grove or green, By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen, But, they do square, that all their elves for fear Creep into acorn-cups and hide them there.

Fairy: Either I mistake your shape and making quite, Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he That frights the maidens of the villagery; Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern And bootless make the breathless housewife churn; And sometime make the drink to bear no barm; Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm? Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck, You do their work, and they shall have good luck: Are not you he?

Puck: Thou speak’st aright; I am that merry wanderer of the night. I jest to Oberon and make him smile When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile, Neighing in likeness of a filly foal: And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl, In very likeness of a roasted crab, And when she drinks, against her lips I bob And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale. The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale, Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me; Then slip I from her bum, down topples she, And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough; And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh, And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear A merrier hour was never wasted there.

Oberon: Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania…

Titania’s rebuff to Oberon is eerily predictive of climate change:

Titania: These are the forgeries of jealousy: And never, since the middle summer’s spring, Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead, By paved fountain or by rushy brook, Or in the beached margent of the sea, To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind, But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport. Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea Contagious fogs; which falling in the land Have every pelting river made so proud That they have overborne their continents: The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain, The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard; The fold stands empty in the drowned field, And crows are fatted with the murrion flock; The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud, And the quaint mazes in the wanton green For lack of tread are undistinguishable: The human mortals want their winter here; No night is now with hymn or carol blest: Therefore the moon, the governess of floods, Pale in her anger, washes all the air, That rheumatic diseases do abound: And thorough this distemperature we see The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose, And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world, By their increase, now knows not which is which: And this same progeny of evils comes From our debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original

Shakespeare can turn giving someone directions into supreme naturalistic poetry:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight
Titania’s last act before wishing others goodnight is not something mundane, like putting the cat out, but:

…a roundel and a fairy song; Then, for the third part of a minute, hence; Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds, Some war with rere-mice for their leathern wings, To make my small elves coats, and some keep back The clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders At our quaint spirits. Sing me now asleep; Then to your offices, and let me rest…

You spotted snakes with double tongue, Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen; Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong, Come not near our fairy queen. Philomel, with melody Sing in our sweet lullaby; Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby: Never harm, Nor spell nor charm, Come our lovely lady nigh; So, good night, with lullaby. Weaving spiders, come not here; Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence! Beetles black, approach not near; Worm nor snail, do no offence.

And she is so imaginative in her kindness:

Be kind and courteous to this gentleman; Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes; Feed him with apricocks and dewberries, With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries; The honey-bags steal from the humble-bees, And for night-tapers crop their waxen thighs And light them at the fiery glow-worm’s eyes, To have my love to bed and to arise; And pluck the wings from painted butterflies To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes..

In Romeo and Juliet, the headstrong and mercurial Mercutio has a flight of imaginative fantasy where he communes with an imaginary fairy world:

Mercutio: O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes In shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the fore-finger of an alderman, Drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep; Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs, The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, The traces of the smallest spider’s web, The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, … Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub, Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers. And in this state she gallops night by night Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight, O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
In As you like it , Orlando, Rosalind, Celia and others are banished to the Forest of Arden, where “there is no clock in the forest”.  Orlando loves Rosalind, and nature becomes the paper on which love poems are written:

O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books, And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character…, Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree, The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she. If a hart do lack a hind, Let him seek out Rosalind. If the cat will after kind, So be sure will Rosalind…

And this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Those who live in harmony with nature can enjoy a simple and contended life:

Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good, content with my harm; and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck…

the property of rain is to wet, and fire to burn; that good pasture makes fat sheep; and that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun…

he that doth the ravens feed, yet providentially caters for the sparrow be comfort to my age

Even the worse weather causes less pain than bad things that happen between people:

Blow, blow thou winter wind, though art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude…thou sting is not so sharp as friend remembered not.

Life must be lived, and love of life

The Middle Ages asserted a supremely powerful and all-creating God who lay in judgement on our immortal souls, and who divinely mandated the earthly powers of royalty and aristocracy.  In contrast, humanism was more concerned with living life as it was, and the nature of human relationships, rather than treating life as a transitional preparation for an after-life.

Shakespeare’s loved life for itself and within its bounds. He accepted the conditions of life, and that it is there to be lived.  Shakespeare had no obvious belief in an undiscovered country from which a traveller may return.  You have to enjoy live now, enjoy all things around you, and knowing that some things survive: poetry, children, others’ memories of you, and your enduring achievements.

Shakespeare plays with the image of time moving in one direction only, “if as a crab I could go backwards.”  He uses distance in time and sequencing of events and lifetimes to protect himself from accusations of heresy, apostasy or political subversion.  “These prophecies Merlin shall make, but I live before his time.”  

There is no evidence he believed in an immortal soul in a strictly literal and religious sense.  In his poems and in the last lines of Hamlet and Othello his tragic heroes want to be remembered after their deaths, for the right reasons.

There is no greater lover of life in Shakespeare than Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV and in the Merry Wives of Windsor.  He is an intelligent and quite learned man.  He debunks honour, glory, and nationalistic cant.  He is allegedly a coward but defends himself, pointing out that discretion is the better part of valour.  Rather than a “victory of death” rhetoric on the battlefield, his cry is “give me life”. He praises drinking and has a bottle of Spanish wine rather than a pistol on the battle field.

Falstaff appears in three plays, and Mrs Quickly has known him for over 29 years, has seen all sides of him, and still loves him.  In her account of his death she told of how Falstaff:

…babbled of green fields…and all was as cold as stone.

While Lear and Ophelia are garnered with weeds or drowned with them, Falstaff engaged with flowers and symbols of life to the end:

However, Shakespeare knew the danger of excessive drinking, warning “O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains”.  He alludes to “falser than vows made in wine”.  The porter lines from Macbeth are famous:

it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him

Vaulting ambition

Shakespeare’s bad characters are often motivated by “vaulting” or “blown” ambition, motivated by power for its own sake, not for what the exercise of justice, fair dealing or human advancement.  “Lowliness is young ambition’s ladder whereto the climber upward turns his face”.  Macbeth reflects that, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on the other.” In contrast, Cordelia says, “No blown ambition doth our arms incite, but love, dear love and our ag’d father’s right.”

The love of language and poetry for its aesthetic powers

Shakespeare loved words, language and poetry for the aesthetic beauty, how they sound.  The poetry was in his head and he had to write his plays and poems to express them, even when the plots and themes do not require them.

If you read and relish Shakespeare, understand him and take him to your heart he will always be with you.  The following includes some lines memorable for their poetry, and some for meaning that may only come later in life, so you can read them and reflect on them as you live life to the full:

I go, I go, look how I go, swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.

Hence, away! now all is well, one aloof stand sentinel.

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth.

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

The moon’s an arrant thief, whose pale fire she snatches from the sun.

I am constant as the Northern Star.

Light seeking light doth light of light beguile.

Winter of our discontent

Put out the light and then put out the light.

Deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book

Rising and cawing at the gun’s report.

I have set my life upon a cast and will stand the hazard of the die.

How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.

Give me that man that is not passion’s slave.

Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Is’t possible a young maid’s wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?

Let the stricken deer go weep, the hart ungalled play; for some must watch while some must sleep: so runs the world away.

What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

To my sick soul (as sin’s true nature is)

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.  So full of artless jealousy is guilt,

It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.


Love all, trust a few, Do wrong to none.


Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear every bush an officer.


The night is long that never finds the day.


I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.

O God! that one might read the book of fate

And what makes robbers bold, but too much lenity.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones;

When majesty stoops to folly.

Thus Kent, o princes, bids you all adieu, he’ll shape his old course in a country new.

He hath ever but slenderly known himself.

If our father would sleep till I waked him.

To be a comrade with the wolf and owl.

Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.

I do not like the fashion of your garments, you will tell them they are Persian but let them be changed.

And I’ll go to bed at noon.

You have been sunshine and rain at once.

I know you what you are.

Love, and be silent.

Come not between the dragon and his wrath.

The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.

To be acknowledg’d, madam, is o’erpaid

Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither; ripeness is all.

I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats; If it be man’s work, I’ll do’t.

The lady protests too much.

This is the very coinage of your brain.

More matter, with less art.

Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low- an excellent thing in woman.

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. My master calls me; I must not say no.

On a day–alack the day!– Love, whose month is ever May, Spied a blossom passing fair Playing in the wanton air: Through the velvet leaves the wind, All unseen, can passage find; That the lover, sick to death, Wish himself the heaven’s breath.

All my pretty ones…

Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.

Out, damned spot!

But what’s his offence?  Groping for trout in a peculiar river.

How far that little candle throws his beams – so shines a good deed in a naughty world.

And the country proverb known, that every man should take his own, in your waking shall be shown, Jack shall have Jill, naught shall go ill..and all will be well.

The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.

It’s not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but it’s enough,’twill serve: …

A plague on both your houses!.

Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid; Fly away, fly away breath; I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

I have drunk, and seen the spider.

This is fairy gold, boy.

If ever you have looked on better days…and know what tis to pity and be pitied.

Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy of the living.

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

This quarry cries on havoc.

I shall not look upon his like again.

There’s daggers in men’s smiles.

Fortune, turn thy wheel.

It is as easy as lying.

When a father gives to his son, both laugh.  When a son gives to a father, both cry.

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.

Love thrives not in the heart that shadows dreadeth.

Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.
Read and immerse yourself in Shakespeare for a lifetime and he will always be ahead of you!


[2] That is, the last play he wrote entirely himself; in semi-retirement he collaborated with some other writers on other plays.

[3] There are wonderful dramatized, and often set to music versions of Shakespeare sonnets at


[4] Bedlam beggars were often mentally people left to roam the countryside begging for survival.  They were the subject of one of the most famous anonymous poems in the English language:

[5] These lines are set to music by Vaughan Williams.





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