The Romantic notion of poets as the "unacknowledged legislators" of society has its limits—but where do we draw them?by Christiana Spens / June 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which presents the assassination of the Ancient Roman leader, has long been used to comment on the politics, and heads of state, of the day. Orson Welles imagined Caesar as a fascist dictator reminiscent of Mussolini (1937). More recently, an Obama-like Caesar was killed off in Minnealpolis’ Guthrie Theatre (2012). A recent Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar has caused a furor, however, with sponsors pulling out because they considered the play to be in “bad taste” for depicting a Trump-like figure being stabbed to death by “ethnic minorities and women.”
To understand this, it is worth thinking through the bigger question of art and politics. Art as political critique has a long and well-known history—Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) used the story of the Salem Witch Trials to denounce the McCarthy era ‘witch-hunt’ of alleged communists, for instance, and more recently, Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident and conceptual artist, produced work criticizing the Chinese government’s corruption and human rights abuses. But are there, or should there be limits regarding ‘taste’ when it comes to (literal) character assassination, as opponents of the recent Julius Caesar production suggest?
The unacknowledged legislators
The idea of the artist as political sage owes much to the Romantic notion of the role of the artist, or poet, as a sort of philosopher, whose wisdom and truth-giving abilities are beneficial and necessary for the functioning of society.
As Shelley puts it in A Defense of Poetry, 1891, “The instigators of laws and the founders of civil society… poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In this essay, Shelley argues that the poet’s role is important and virtuous, because poets are the moral arbiters of society, defining and protecting moral and social norms.
‘Poetry’, or culture, he says, “awakes and enlarges the mind itself by rendering in it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.” For Shelley, poetry is innately concerned with unity and harmony, and that it is, therefore, a positive influence to have in society. Order is produced by the imaginative and creative faculties, not simply “rational faculty.”
While poetry, and culture more generally, may indeed possess these virtues, it is naïve and even irresponsible to ignore that culture is concerned with…