Katherine B. Attié

This page reflects a scholar's association with the Folger Institute.

Long-term fellowship

"Shakespeare’s Political Aesthetic" (NEH, 2012–2013)

Reading against the New Historicist reduction of “the political” to an oppressive regime from which art struggles to break free, this book argues that for Shakespeare, the aesthetic and political domains were essentially connected in a more positive way. My approach contextualizes Shakespeare with respect to early modern political thinkers such as Baldesare Castiglione, Sir Thomas Elyot, and Francis Bacon, who scrutinized works of art and forms of beauty for lessons about power, governance, prudence, and justice. Close readings establish that Shakespeare likewise drew political meaning from aesthetic principles while figuring the state as a work of art. Reevaluating the “Elizabethan world picture,” I maintain that although Shakespeare and his contemporaries habitually saw patterns of correspondence as manifesting the beauty of the universe, this beauty was not simply a result of hegemonic, hierarchical order keeping everything in its proper place. Rather, beauty depends – as Shakespeare’s plays depend – on the artful accommodation and skillful arrangement of eccentricity, variety, and plenitude. In chapters focusing on tyranny as an art of disproportion in Hamlet, conquest as artisanal labor in Henry V, effective governance as musical harmony, and justice as a dance, this study shows how Shakespeare used the powerful paradox of concordia discors to unite opposing forces and to make difference beautiful. By following a politicized idea of beauty from its classical origins to its early modern flowering, the book demonstrates that a return to aesthetics need not require a turn away from historicity.