What did Shakespeare have to say about constitutional thought?

07 March 2014


Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.
                     David Hume, Of the First Principles of Government
It was perhaps with half a mind on Vladimir Putin’s recent behaviour in the Crimea that Professor Galligan opened his disquisition on constitutional thought in Shakespeare’s plays, not with a quote from the bard himself, but with this salutary observation from the Scottish philosopher David Hume.
In the lecture, entitled ‘Shakespeare and the Lower Register of Constitutional Thought’, held at Wolfson College on Wednesday, Professor Denis Galligan, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford, drew on some of the lesser known passages from the plays to make an illuminating case for Shakespeare’s views on the nature of authority, the fragility of constitutional order, and the innate social divisions that persist to the present day.
Professor Galligan was accompanied by his daughter, Dr Francesca Galligan of the Bodleian Library, who read passages from the plays in support of the argument, demonstrating that Shakespeare frequently represented the common people as the better arbiters of the common good than those who hold power.
Whilst extensive reference was made to Henry VI  Part II, Professor Galligan did not restrict his analysis to the History plays, as he sought to explore the question of how the common people experience and make sense of authority, and why they acquiesce in it.
Citing examples of popular rebellion in Shakespeare, as well as the need for rulers such as Richard III and Coriolanus to secure the approval of the people to gain power, he concluded that, to Shakespeare’s mind, the people were to be seen as the keepers of the common good – and that their acceptance of authority is conditional on the good governance of those in power.
A podcast of the lecture will be available from our Podcast pages next week.