Everything can be divided—this is Shakespeare’s great insight. Nothing is so whole that it may not be cut into parts, given away slowly, measured out. This is true of the kingdom in “King Lear” and it is equally true of the love of his daughter, weighed like grain. It is true of our own responses to the plays, for their magic lies in their power to divide our sympathies. They hoard up love. They distribute riches in a time of scarcity, when prices are high, when kindness is rare. Their poetry is economic.
He did not have to write this way. Shakespeare’s most celebrated contemporary and rival was Ben Jonson, who wrote plays designed to teach his audiences moral lessons, to stir them into outrage. In the prefaces he added to his plays, Jonson frequently expressed his hope that the theater could be a morally improving, didactic art form, one which would teach us to better ourselves. Shakespeare, on the other hand, never suggests any possibility of improvement. Those who are wicked—and in his imagining we are all a little wicked—will remain so. Was he a hoarder, ruthless, opportunistic? Of course. This sensibility is what makes him so startlingly modern, and it his great gift to us.
Daniel Swift teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London and is the author of “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers.”