“All the world’s a stage” (no.13 in series)

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In the run-up to The Ninth World Shakespeare Congress in Prague I posted a selection of blogs from grant winners looking forward to that event. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a selection of blogs from some  more of those grant winners.  This week’s contribution comes from Christian Smith, who is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.  His research tests the thesis that Shakespeare’s plays had a formative influence on the writings of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and that that influence forms the roots of Critical Theory.


Shakespeare, Marx and the Tickling Commodity

In his 1846 book, The German Ideology, Karl Marx wrote that Shakespeare knew more about the alienating effects of commodities than did the ‘theorising petty bourgeois’.  Marx then quoted a selection of lines about the god of commodities – gold – from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens:

Thus much of this will make

Black white, foul fair, wrong right,

Base noble, old young, coward valiant.

This yellow slave…[will]

Make the hoar leprosy adored…

This is it

That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;

She whom the spittle-house and ulcerous sores

Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices

To th’April day again…

Thou visible god,

That solder’st close impossibilities,

And makes them kiss! (4.3)


Marx included quotations from Timon of Athens in all of his economic writings.  There is evidence that the play may have had a formative influence on Marx’s economic theory.

The following video clips from interviews with Marx scholar and biographer David McLellan and Shakespeare scholar and biographer Jonathan Bate discuss Marx’s engagement with economic themes in Shakespeare’s plays.

And here is the answer to Jonathan’s question about whether Marx worked with Shakespeare’s multiple meanings of the word commodity in King John. The excerpt below is from an article written by Marx for the New York Daily Tribune, March 31, 1857. It is called, ‘The Coming Election in England’. The italicized lines are from King John, 1.1 and 2.1.Marx writes:

"'Stand between two churchmen, good my Lord; For on that ground I'll make a holy descant.' Palmerston does not exactly comply with the advice tendered by Buckingham to Richard III. He stands between the churchman on the one side, and the opium-smuggler on the other. While the Low Church bishops, whom the veteran impostor allowed the Earl of Shaftsbury, his kinsman, to nominate, vouch his 'righteousness', the opium-smugglers, the dealers in 'sweet poison for the age's tooth', vouch his faithful service to 'commodity, the bias of the world.' Burke, the Scotchman, was proud of the London 'Resurrectionists'. So is Palmerston of the Liverpool 'poisoners'. These smooth-faced gentlemen are the worthy representatives of a town, the pedigree of whose greatness may be directly traced back to the slave trade."

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Author:Nick Walton

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

    Absolutely fascinating Blog and interview. Thank you for posting them.

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