The once autocratic King Lear, now stripped of power and exposed to the storm, ushers the poor Fool into the hovel, then kneels and prays:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
And in case you didn’t grasp Shakespeare’s message, here is Gloucester, his eyes gouged out, giving his purse to Mad Tom:
Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens’ plagues
Have humbled to all strokes. That I am wretched
Makes thee the happier. Heavens deal so still.
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly.
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
All this sounds dangerously like ‘anti-capitalism’ and an attack on inequality. Yet, what we are clearly meant to take away is how both Lear and Gloucester have learnt wisdom and humanity from suffering their loss of wealth and power.
The government has recently ordered schools not to use resources from organisations that “take extreme political stances”, including those expressing a desire to end capitalism.
So when can we expect Shakespeare (apparently a closet Marxist), and especially his most profound play, King Lear, to be banned from the curriculum? And will Dickens and many others soon follow?
Let us draw up an alternative anti-capitalist English literature curriculum for GCSE and A level (though many of these texts are already on current syllabuses).
An anti-capitalist GCSE English literature syllabus:
Novels: George Orwell – Animal Farm (socialist revolution commandeered by autocratic capitalist pigs)
Charles Dickens – Great Expectations; Hard Times; Oliver Twist (wealth and poverty)
George Eliot – Silas Marner (class)
HG Wells – The Time Machine (a workers’ dystopia)
Poetry: WH Auden – The Unknown Citizen
Robert Burns – To a Mouse; For A’ That
Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Two Scavengers in a truck …
Louis MacNeice – Prayer before Birth
William Wordsworth – Michael (love and money)
Percy Bysshe Shelley – The Masque of Anarchy (Peterloo massacre)
John Clare – The Mores; Remembrances (Enclosure Acts)
Plays: Bertholt Brecht – The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Hitler, Chicago gangster) Henrik Ibsen – An Enemy of the People (fighting corruption)
Timberlake Wertenbaker – Our Country’s Good (convicts in the 1780s)
JB Priestley – An Inspector Calls (class)
Nikolai Gogol – The Government Inspector (corruption)
An anti-capitalist A level English literature syllabus:
Novels: Charles Dickens – Bleak House; Little Dorrit (panorama of a society corrupted by money)
F Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby (the capitalist dream)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (capitalism gone ivory mad in Africa);
Nostromo (silver trade corruption in South America)
Toni Morrison – Belovèd (slavery)
Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (a feminine dystopia)
Anthony Trollope – The Way We Live Now (capitalist crash)
Poetry: GeoffreyChaucer – The Pardoner’s Tale (money – the root of all evil)
Edwin Muir – The Combat; The Horses
WH Auden – September 1, 1939; The Shield of Achilles
C Day Lewis – Come Live with Me
William Blake – London; The Chimney Sweeper; And Did Those Feet in
Dylan Thomas – And Death Shall Have No Dominion
John Milton – Lycidas
Robert Browning – My Last Duchess
Plays: Arthur Miller – Death of a Salesman (the American dream), All My Sons (lust for money)
Bertholt Brecht – The Caucasian Chalk Circle (justice, class)
Henrik Ibsen – A Doll’s House (role of women)
George Bernard Shaw – Man and Superman (evolution)
John Osborne – Look Back in Anger (social alienation)
Sean O’Casey – The Plough and the Stars (Easter Rising)
William Shakespeare – Julius Caesar; Coriolanus; Macbeth; King Lear (money, power)
David Hare – Plenty (post-war wealth)
Based as it is on facilitating private companies to run public services and propped up by super-rich capitalists with money stashed away in tax havens, what else is the present Tory–Brexit government’s ideology but an extreme political stance? Extreme forms of capitalism are also characterised by their readiness to break the law (cf the internal market bill and the 2019 prorogation of parliament) and by their tendency to rule by diktat (cf lack of parliamentary scrutiny over Brexit negotiations, future trade deals and Covid-19 legislation).
“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism”, so said Martin Luther King in 1967. With no end in sight for endemic social inequality and the global poverty divide, and the averseness of big business to risk their multi-billion-dollar profits to tackle climate change, King most definitely had a point.