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February 02, 2011

Killing the Great Man

After reading Karl Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 in the early 1980s, the veil was ripped from in front of my eyes and I saw many things clearly. The more times I read the book, the deeper my vision penetrated into the roots of modern society. Marxism, with its foundational philosophical methods, historical materialism and dialectical materialism, became the method that I used to analyse all the academic fields in which I studied – physiology, psychology, pedagogy and literary criticism. Marx’s theories of alienation and reification became the foundational theories for my practice in each of these fields – as a somatic therapist, a psychotherapist, a teacher and a literary critic. They are the through line that unites all of my work.

Throughout my academic life, I steadily worked my way through Marx’s collected writings and deepened my respect and admiration for the man. I clearly remember my feelings during my first visit to his gravesite in Highgate Cemetery. I stood in awe before the massive sculpture of his head on the tomb. I delighted in reading his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach on his tombstone – ‘The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.’ Without noticing it, and against Marx’s tenets of historical materialism (which I understood well), I contributed to the Great Man Theory of History by placing Karl Marx, the man, at the centre of his theories.

This methodological mistake reached its (ridiculous) apex when I came to the conclusion that Shakespeare was Marxist. During my readings of Shakespeare’s plays, I found many examples of Marx’s notions of the problems with money and the commodification of life, of oppressive hegemonic relations, of the inversion of the object and the subject, of alienation and reification, and of the failure of mutual recognition. Obviously, I knew that the nineteenth century Marx could not have influenced the sixteenth century Shakespeare, but I still clung to the idea that I had found Marx in Shakespeare.

When I proposed an exploration of Shakespeare’s Marxism to my doctoral supervisor, Jonathan Bate, he went silent for a moment and then re-emerged suggesting that I look at how Marx is Shakespearean. I thought, to myself; ‘What?! How can Marx, the greatest thinker of all time, be Shakespearean?’ I quickly realized that I had seriously erred in my thinking about Marx. His work was not written in isolation. The greatness of his critique of our world was not thought up only by him. Marxism is not Marx; it is, at the time of his writings, one end product of thousands of years of thinking about the human condition. Marx is a man who had the vision and capacity to formulate strands from all those years of human thought into a radical theory and method. The reason why I saw so much Marx in Shakespeare is because I saw the same issues explored in similar ways both in Marx and in Shakespeare. When I stepped out of the Great Man method of thinking, I could clearly see that the issues should be central, not the men. I needed to kill the last vestiges of the Great Man in my mind in order to see deeper into Marx’s work in its social context.

Shakespeare the Great Man has also received many fatal blows recently. Theatrical studies have revealed that Shakespeare’s plays were written within the context of the complex environment of early modern culture production that was influenced by historical precedent and paradigms, contemporary economic and political conditions, and the ideological framework of their audience. Apocrypha studies have torn down the fortifications surrounding Shakespeare’s canon. We now accept that Shakespeare wrote more than he is said to have written and less than he is given credit for. Shakespeare’s hand can be found in parts of plays attributed to other playwrights and other playwright’s writings can be found in many of the plays for which Shakespeare is given sole credit. Shakespeare was certainly one of the best writers of his time, if not of all time, but he wrote in the flow of the river of human consciousness. His mind and its sensitivities are a product of history. Similarly, Marx was also a powerful and effective writer, but he too was a product of history. One significant historical influence that Marx found in world literature was Shakespeare’s plays. He allowed his consciousness to be infused by the ideas, imagery, and plots of the plays. Indeed, there is much that is Shakespearean in Marx.

Yet who influenced Shakespeare? When he waded in the river of human thought and consciousness he fished out ideas from his contemporary playwrights, from Montaigne and Machiavelli, from the Classical poets and prose writers including Ovid and Homer, Plutarch and Aristotle. By shifting my focus from the works of great men to the history of human thinking and culture, I have been able to clearly see the influence of Shakespeare on Marx, or better put, the influence of the ideas with which Shakespeare worked on the ideas with which Marx worked.

This has revealed to me an interesting new view about hope for social change. It is easy to despair about the fact that few people today seem to be taking Marx seriously, and that we will continue to suffer under the injustice and inefficiency of a clearly outdated system – capitalism. However, my research has shown me that the very issues about which Marx writes were dramatized in Shakespeare’s plays, in Montaigne’s essays, in Virgil’s poetry and in Sophocles’ plays. Concerns about the role of money in our life have been voiced for more than two thousand years. Concerns about the fate of humans in a world ruled by domination are just as old. The question of what it means to be human and how humans lose that status is possibly the most explored question in world literature. These concerns, which lay at the root of Marx’s writings, are universal and long-standing, and, therefore, lay at the roots of the human condition. A solution can be found if we follow our great writers into those roots.

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