The world’s greatest revolutionary writer owed much to the greatest of all English poets

Anjan Basu

                         Many poets left their mark on Karl Marx’s writings, but few imprints were as powerful as Shakespeare’s.

Karl and Jenny Marx

Nineteenth-century England had a delightful social ritual called ‘Confessions’. It was a perfectly ‘secular’ practice, meant to relax rather than cleanse the mind. It was one of the common drawing-room diversions where participants answered a semi-jocular questionnaire about themselves – some kind of a Victorian equivalent of what modern-day management lingo would describe as an individual’s  ‘vision and mission statement’. You had to answer questions about what and whom you liked or hated, your favourite books, authors, heroines, virtue and so on. As long-term residents of London, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not immune to its charms. Marx’s daughters and their friends quite relished the idea of getting these two ‘serious’ gentlemen to make their confessions. 

The two friends’ confessions could not have been more dissimilar. While Marx’s ‘motto’ was De omnibus dubitandum (‘Question everything’), Engels’ was ‘Take it easy’. Spartacus and Kepler were Marx’s heroes, but Engels had ‘none’. Marx saw his own defining characteristic as ‘Singleness of purpose’, while Engels said it was ‘knowing everything by halves’. But there was one important area where the friends’ preferences clearly converged: William Shakespeare and Wolfgang Goethe figured on both the lists in the ‘favourite poets’ category.  The authors of The Communist International had no difficulty acknowledging their debt to two great poets, one of them an Englishman who had been dead two hundred years before they were born themselves.

Marx had wanted to be a poet himself. Indeed, the first literary efforts of the future leader of revolutionary socialism were lyrical contemplations of life and love. He had read Shakespeare since his early teens, first in German translation and later in the original. As a newly-enrolled eighteen-year-old at the University of Berlin, he wrote poems of love and longing to Jenny von Westphalen, his future wife, and at least one of them unabashedly takes off on Shakespeare’s Sonnet no 40 which begins thus:

              Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
              What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
              No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
              All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more.

 The opening line  of Marx’s sonnet-- So nimm sie hin, die Lieder alle – literally means ‘So take it all, take all the songs’. No wonder that when she read these lines, Jenny cried ‘tears of joy and sorrow’. Her family shared Marx’s admiration for Shakespeare. Indeed, it was Jenny’s father, Baron Ludwig von Westphalen –known to have been very fond of the young Karl – who initiated Marx to Shakespeare.  Reminiscing many years later, Paul Lafargue, the French socialist leader, wrote that Marx’s ‘respect for Shakespeare was boundless’. He went on to add:

(H)e made a detailed study of his (Shakespeare’) works and knew even the least important of his characters. His whole family had a real cult for the great English dramatist; his three daughters knew many of Shakespeare’s works by heart. When after 1848 he wanted to perfect his knowledge of English... he sought out and classified all Shakespeare’s original expressions.

Lafargue knew what he was talking about: he was not only a disciple of Marx’s, he also knew the family inside out, having married the master’s second daughter, Laura. And here we have the testimony of the youngest of the three sisters, Eleanor, a good ten years Laura’s junior:

And Mohr would also read to his children. Thus to me, as to my sisters before me, he read the whole of Homer, the whole Nibelungen Lied, Gudrun, Don Quixote, the Arabian Nights, etc. As to Shakespeare, he was the Bible of our house, seldom out of our hands or mouths. By the time I was six, I knew scene upon scene of Shakespeare by heart.

‘Mohr’ is German for Moor, the name the Marx children called their father by –Moor being shorthand for Othello. But, more significant is the reference in Eleanor’s note to ‘the Bible of our house’. All the Marx daughters grew up as fiercely atheistic, revolutionary activists, and Eleanor would not cite the Bible lightheartedly. She did not mention her mother here, but Jenny Marx also was a Shakespeare buff. An accomplished theatre critic, Jenny wrote extensively – and very perceptively -- about Shakespeare productions on the London stage in the 1870s. She was one of a tiny handful of critics who wrote admiring reviews of the great Shakespearian actor (Sir) Henry Irving much before he became fashionable.

Marx and Engels with Marx’s three daughters

Marx could read all the major modern European languages (plus Latin and Greek) and write in three -- German, French and English – with equal felicity. He started teaching himself Russian when he was fifty-one --- so as to be able to read, in the original, official Russian documents which would aid his research – and, in less than a year’s time, he was reading Pushkin, Turgenev, Shchedrin, Lomonosov and, his great favourite, Nikolai  Chernyshevsky in Russian. He read everything that came his way, but rated Balzac, Fielding and Cervantes above every other novelist, though he loved Dumas, Walter Scott, Zola and Paul de Kock as well and had a distinct preference for adventure stories and comic pieces. Among the ancients, he adored Aeschylus, reading his plays over and over again every year, almost ritually. Indeed, he often relaxed in the evening --- after a hard day’s work at the British Museum’s Reading Room researching Capital --curled up on the sofa, with Aeschylus (in Greek) in hand. Heine, his older contemporary, was a special favourite, as were Dante, Goethe, Byron and Calderon.

But Lafargue was right: no writer in any language or genre perhaps equalled Shakespeare in Marx’s eye. As early as in 1844, in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx quotes extensively from Timon of Athens to make the case that ‘the distorting and confounding of all human and natural qualities’ lies at the very heart of ‘the divine power of money’:

                 Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, Gods,
                 I am no idle votarist!....
                 Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
                 Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.....
                 This yellow slave
                 Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
                 Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
                 And give them title, knee and approbation
                 With senators on the bench...............
                   ..................                            Come, damned earth,
                 Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds
                  Among the rout of nations.

Shakespeare, Marx goes on to add, ‘excellently depicts the real nature of money’, and shows that ‘(m)oney is the alienated ability of mankind’. ‘It is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples’. Years later, Marx was to revisit Timon again in Capital, this time in a ringing indictment of the cash nexus destroying the dignity of labour. After quoting from the play, he goes on thus:

Just as every qualitative difference between commodities is extinguished in money, so money, on its side, like the radical leveller that it is, does away with all distinctions... Thus social power becomes the private power of private persons.

We couldn’t of course expect Marx to promote a narrative of Shakespeare ‘as an apolitical and quaint advocate of ‘Merrie England’, devoid of any ...subversive messages’, as a critic noted. As greatly as he admired Shakespeare for the breathtaking flights of his dramatic imagination (and the splendid lyricism of his sonnets), Marx could not but have reacted warmly to the dissident potential of the bard’s voice. He drew repeatedly upon The Merchant of Venice to make his case about the limitless greed underlying early capitalist accumulation. While reporting, in 1843, on desperate rural poverty in the Moselle district –where landowners brought in new punitive legislation to prevent poor peasants from picking up fallen tree branches from the commons for fuel – he invoked Portia’s animated exchange with Shylock in the courtroom: the Moselle landowner coalesces into the infamous Venice usurer in Marx’s  report. Many years later, in  Capital, Marx returns to The Merchant ... once again, this time to highlight the depravity of the English factory-owning class that exploited child labour ruthlessly:

       Workmen and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds (against such exploitation), but Capital answered:
               ‘My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
                The penalty and forfeit of my bond’.

In Troilus and Cressida, an unsettling narrative of disillusionment and doubt, Marx sees Shakespeare nailing the stupidity of insensitive, egotistical rulers. In the play, Theresites talks witheringly of the delusions of the Greek nobles who wage the Trojan War and inflict countless hardships on the common citizens who are dragged into the utterly pointless campaign against their wishes. Writing to Engels in 1848, Marx approvingly quotes Theresites’s comments on these deluded worthies:

                                I had rather be a tick in a sheep
                               Than such a valiant ignorance.

Theresites, sadly, was ineffectual in his cynicism, but to Marx, who hated philistines, he was incomparably more likeable than the grandstanding Hector.

In an article for the New York Daily Tribune in March, 1854, Marx observes, wryly, that

A singularity of English tragedy, so repulsive to French feelings that Voltaire used to call Shakespeare a drunken savage, is its peculiar mixture of the sublime and the base, the terrible and the ridiculous, the heroic and the burlesque. But nowhere does Shakespeare devolve upon the clown the task of speaking the prologue of a heroic drama. This invention was reserved for the Coalition Ministry.

The immediate context here was of Britain, ruled by a coalition ministry led by Lord Aberdeen, bungling into the Crimean War. Marx lampoons Aberdeen pitilessly. But he also makes the important point that Shakespeare’s genius consisted in his ability to take in the staggering complexity of human nature, his deep appreciation of the subtleties and nuances of human behaviour. Later Marxists also found Shakespeare’s incredibly wide repertoire of human characters fascinating, as Leon Trotsky pointed out more than once himself:

In the tragedies of Shakespeare, which would be entirely unthinkable without the Reformation, the fate of the ancients and the passions of the mediaeval Christians are crowded out by individual human passions, such as love, jealousy, revengeful greediness, and spiritual dissension. But in every one of Shakespeare’s dramas, the individual passion is carried to such a high degree that it outgrows the individual, becomes super-personal, and is transformed into a fate of a certain kind. The jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth, the greed of Shylock, the love of Romeo and Juliet, the arrogance of Coriolanus, the spiritual wavering of Hamlet, are all of this kind.

For Trotsky, by positing the individual -- with his passions and aspirations and despondencies – at the heart of his narrative, Shakespeare heralded the arrival of modern literature. Trotsky was really paraphrasing what his mentor, Karl Marx, suggested on numerous occasions in many different contexts: that Shakespeare’s was a uniquely gifted voice that lived and worked on the cusp of a massive social transformation – a throbbing, pulsating process whereby feudal society mutated into capitalism. As much as he was modern capitalism’s most trenchant critic, Marx nevertheless was fully alive to the enormous positive energy harnessed by the capitalist system. It was only natural for him, therefore, to pay homage to the greatest literary artist to have come out of the era that witnessed the birth of capitalism.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator of poetry. He can be reached at

May 5, 2019

Anjan Basu

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