Shakespeare and the Right to the City: Subjective Alienation in Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and 2 Henry VI (Seminar, 10th February)

Shakespeare Mirrorgram, by Simon Breese, reproduced under CC-BY-2.0 licence.
Shakespeare Mirrorgram, by Simon Breese, reproduced under CC BY-SA-2.0  licence.

The first seminar of the Inventions of the Text series in 2016 sees Dr Patrick Gray talk about three of Shakespeare’s plays. All are welcome to the Department of English Studies, on 10th February, at 17.30.

In his treatise The Right to the City, published in Paris just before the student riots of 1968, Henri Lefebvre claims that inhabitants have a ‘right to the city’ which supersedes the rights of property owners and advocates ‘re-appropriation’ of the city, resulting in ‘collective ownership and management of space’. Lefebvre’s radical proposals inspired his students to take more direct action, and present-day movements such as the Occupy protests continue to cite his concept of ‘the right to the city’ as their inspiration. Shakespeare for his part, however, in his history plays presents what amounts to a nightmare counterpoint to Lefebvre’s dream. In 2 Henry VI, an analogue of ‘the right to the city’ appears as might be called ‘the right to the commons’. Far from bringing about any kind of ‘concrete utopia’, however, the Jack Cade Rebellion quickly degenerates into horrifying bloodshed. In Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, Shakespeare again presents what seems to be point-for-point opposition to anarchic populism such as Lefebvre’s. Shakespeare and Lefebvre share some important common ground, however, in their sense that mob violence is a response to subjective alienation, distinct from any more objective deprivation. Within the Hegelian tradition, Charles Taylor, Francis Fukuyama, and Axel Honneth have written extensively on the desire for recognition as an engine of political conflict. Violence is not always coldly calculating, but instead, spurred on by an emotion: indignation. More than any material change in what Marx would call the ‘conditions of production’, Shakespeare’s peasants and plebeians want to be recognized as worthy of respect; in the language of Coriolanus, they want their ‘voices’ to be heard. Riots and rebellions are their way of protecting that right.

Patrick Gray is currently working on a book project, Shame and Guilt in Shakespeare

Epiphany TermInventions of the Text is a student-led seminar series at Durham University’s Department of English Studies. Postgraduate students and staff from all relevant humanities departments across the UK are welcome to participate. The next seminar in the series will be on 24th February.


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