Optimi consiliarii mortui - the best counsellors are the dead

 

Shakespeare is often studied with an eye to literature, less often with an eye to politics. My work on Shakespeare looks at him as a political thinker, as well as skilled playwright, who was drawing on the political thinking of the age to create his characters and give them life.

 

His Polonius in Hamlet is such a character - he defines the parameters for counsel in the Elizabethan period. The morally good counsellors, those of humanist inclination, are bubbling and ineffective, spouting useless proverbs and commonplaces. The morally suspect counsellors, the 'Machiavellians', are effective but sneaky and dangerous. Thus, the best counsellors are the dead, books of history, lessons from our ancestors. Thus it is that Hamlet proclaims Polonius to be a better counsellor, once he has killed him: "Indeed this counselor/ Is now most still, most secret, and most grave/ Who was in life a foolish prating knave".

 

My work on counsel and Hamlet received the Sir John Neale Prize in Tudor History, and has been published in Renaissance Studies

SHAKESPEARE

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