Indiana Daily Student

OPINION: The tragedy of William Shakespeare: How capitalists steal leisure from workers

Mel Gibson and Helena Bonham Carter star in the 1990 film adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet."
Mel Gibson and Helena Bonham Carter star in the 1990 film adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, England’s poorest citizens could pay a penny for standing room at the Globe theater. Some servants and apprentices spent all of their spare time there. 

The image of England's workers crowding together to watch Iago plot Othello’s downfall or hear Shylock plead his humanity reveals some truths about people and our relationship with art. 

First, human beings do not solely exist to perform labor. Second, art and other forms of leisure are essential to secure mankind’s happiness — these apparent wants are in actuality needs. And finally, it is a perversion of mankind’s artistic impulse to make a commodity of art and to deny the majority of the population their necessary leisure. 

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The best seats in Elizabethan England went to the rich, not because they loved Shakespeare more than the poor, but because they had money. 

Nothing’s changed. Wealthy liberals today are filing in to see “Hadestown,” a musical so obviously meant for the working class that unfortunately most of them will never see. In the show, a tyrannical industrial capitalist makes the lives of his workers miserable to the point of near-rebellion. Price of admission? $200 a ticket.

Leisure has always been reserved for the elites. The capitalists have long claimed the free market has brought liberty to all, but they hoard leisure and throw the rest of us crumbs. 

The capitalists have enslaved mankind to wage labor and have ruined the minds and bodies of the majority of people. The philosopher Adam Smith wrote in 1776 how workers under capitalism resigned to monotonous, meaningless labor become “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

I suspect many of you know, hundreds of years later, what Smith is talking about. You probably know someone, many someones, who hate their jobs. You might hate your job, too. You might hate how physically and mentally exhausting your work feels.

The majority of Americans are in a job they dislike, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. This is especially true for workers who are without higher education. 

Of capitalism’s many evils, its capacity for diminishing humanity’s potential is high on the list. Shakespeare, once enjoyed by the masses, is now seen as difficult and elitist. It has been wrested away from popular audiences by those privileged enough to afford an education. Shakespeare is now “high art.” It’s “literature.” 

Who has time for “Julius Caesar” when you have to work multiple jobs, which a growing number of Americans are forced to do, according to census data. 

The philosopher Karl Marx wrote, “[Man] feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home.” 

When we’re not working, we seek leisure most of all. When not selling our bodies to a capitalist, we sell our minds to television, to athletics, to film, to art. The anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin wrote of how people often deny themselves necessaries “to acquire mere trifles.” You’ve surely seen this behavior in modern America as well. 

We should be outraged. How can we sleep at night knowing the majority of people, because of capitalism, must choose between their bodies and their souls? 

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Food is necessary, and therefore it’s an absolute evil to deny it to others for lack of money. Art is necessary too — otherwise man is nothing more than a wage slave. Life would have no meaning for the workers. 

Making commodities of art and luxuries is nothing short of cruelty. Marx writes, “labor produces for the rich wonderful things.” He said, “It produces palaces — but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty — but for the worker, deformity,” as well as, “It produces intelligence — but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.”

Under capitalism, workers are subjected to jobs they despise, wherein they produce luxuries for the wealthy while ruining their intellectual faculties. Any spare moment away from work is a moment spent searching for any semblance of leisure. The luxuries produced by the workers are for the most part denied to them.

For the worker under capitalism, life, in the words of Macbeth, is “but a walking shadow,” and “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Socialists seek to liberate the worker and to put an end to the inequality of luxury. 

Jared Quigg (he/him) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.

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