The UK media tells us that the electorate is already bored with the coming general election. Shakespeare’s audience didn’t have this problem – most of them didn’t have the right to vote. They didn’t have freedom of speech either. 18thc writers such as Swift and Fielding still negotiated a world without freedom of speech and where most people had no political say. The Romantic poets at the close of the 18thc and dawn of the 19thc continued the long fight in print for political change.
Currently in the United Kingdom we benefit from freedom of speech, religion and education, not to mention healthcare which would in most parts of the world be deemed excellent. These things are really very recent – they were not enjoyed until the twentieth century – some decades of which I remember clearly 🙂 .
As a woman I benefited from an education which would not have been possible in any previous period, as a Christian I benefit from the UK’s freedom to pursue any religion (or none). Much remains to be done but the fact that we have the right to vote, to contact and to openly challenge our politicians makes me feel uncharacteristically cheerful 🙂 .
Of course cynicism is much more fun so who better to turn to than Machiavelli, who discussed strategies for political manipulation and control in The Prince (1513). He maintained: ‘it is much more safe to be feared than to be loved … For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful and fickle, dissemblers, avoiders of danger, and greedy of gain’, insisting, ‘mankind is bad’(p.65). He also claimed that most of us are ‘simple’ or stupid and therefore easily duped: ‘the prince should know … how to be a great hypocrite and dissembler. For men are so simple, and yield so much to immediate necessity, that the deceiver will never lack dupes’(p.68).
For more on Machiavelli, Renaissance politics and culture (including Shakespeare) please see my free lecture, The Renaissance: An Introduction.
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