Thesis: Stirling is very concerned about the relationship between literature and society. His opening and closing chapters thrash around with the topic of whether or not literature has anything to teach society, and in the main part of the book he examines how Shakespeare was influenced by society's views about the common people. His conclusion is that Shakespeare and his audience accepted the negative picture of the common people that was used for conservative propaganda purposes:
We are now . . . in a position to imagine an audience of Shakespeare's time as it witnessed the Cade scenes [in 2 Henry IV], Julius Caesar, or Coriolanus. On the stage a notorious rebel of English history incites his blundering followers to level all distinctions of property and of caste. Or a Roman mob, fickle and discordant, by asserting its democratic influence makes of the political scene a shambles or a madhouse. Lively drama and astringent conservative satirethese the audience enjoys with abandon . . . . Something, however, has taken its toll long before they entered the theater. They have heard it preached and have heard it said unceasingly that the muster of nonconformists is growing steadily, that the inescapable goal of nonconformity is wholesale leveling, and that the true ancestors and equals of troublemakers in their midst are English peasant rebels and the unstable Roman plebs. They have been told in sermons and have heard it rhymed in season and out that Jack Cade, Jack Straw, the Roman mobs, and the Anabaptists are all one and that together or individually they spell out the Puritan, "Presbyterial," or Brownists disciplines all of which are to be lumped together. (149)According to Stirling, Shakespeare offered his audience exactly what they expected: violent mobs of thoughtless troublemakers who were a clear and present danger to society.
Evaluation: Stirling's account of the politics of the texts of Shakespeare's time is very thorough, which can make his book heavy going for someone who is not a fan of cultural history.
Bottom Line: ok