Coming home from a lively day-symposium to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Terry Eagleton’s book on Shakespeare in his Blackwells ‘Rereading Literature’ series (which famously kicks off with the provocative claim that the three witches are the heroines of Macbeth), I find myself impressed by how clairvoyantly Morris predicted the whole subsequent history of radical Shakespeare criticism in a single pregnant remark in News from Nowhere. For William Guest reflects of Dick Hammond that ‘the nineteenth century ... counted for nothing in the memory of this man, who read Shakespeare and had not forgotten the Middle Ages’ (ch.VIII).
Reading Shakespeare without forgetting the Middle Ages: if all philosophy has been a footnote to Plato, all later Marxist criticism of the Bard has been a footnote to that terse remark of Guest’s. For as Fredric Jameson put it in 1995, ‘Shakespeare would thus be the name for the space and locus of transition as such – the immense historical dislocations and sufferings of an incomprehensible and seismological shift from the feudal to the commercial and later on the capitalist’. Of all the plays, King Lear would be the privileged text of that transition from medieval feudalism to capitalism; and this is the great epochal transformation from which not only Shakespeare but the very genre of utopia itself emerges (through the good offices of Thomas More).