Saturday, 8 May 2010

My crown I am

As follow up to an earlier blog, I am again looking at Shakespeare's favourite "death of kings" theme, which seems rather apt today in relation to the post election situation of Gordon Brown.

Shakespeare was not simply a propagandist for the Elizabethans, or even one for the Earl of Essex. He gives his characterization of King Richard II (who was a weak and eventually tyrannical medieval king) real pathos. He does this inspite of the King's crimes: allowing unprofitable "weeds" to gain too much power around him, listening to flatterers deceiving him and blind mismanagement.

Shakespeare does not mention this but Richard II had been a fine patron of the arts. The Wilton Diptych dates from his era and Geoffrey Chaucer was Court Poet. He is chiefly remembered today for the wonderful hammerbeam roof in Westminster Hall. On his magnificent tomb in Westminster Abbey, he was, in past times, romantically holding hands with his first Queen, Anne of Bohemia. In the play, he acts out a truly tearjerking farewell with his second wife, Isabel of France. Nevertheless, the historical assessment of Richard is that he was malleable, effeminate and "beautiful": a man with personality disorders. One of his least attractive traits was sitting on his throne for hours, ensuring that whoever he glanced at instantly bowed to him.

In the play, Richard's downfall is clearly his own fault. He has already ruined England and then confiscates the lands of John of Gaunt whose crime was telling him, on his death bed, of his entire responsibility for the collapse of England. In the play, the trigger for his fall is Richard's order to disinherit Gaunt's son, Bolingbroke. It is a despotic breach of English law, enrages the nobles, who rise up under Bolingbroke and depose him. They eventually murder him, in all probability although it was never been proved.

As in a Greek tragedy, the leader is brought down by his own fatal flaws. We should study these flaws carefully: there is a science in them. They can bring us down, too. In Shakespeare's play, Richard's flaw was giving power to the wrong people, lack of care for England's "garden," which requires pruning to deliver its fruit, and his vanity at being unable to take any criticism.

The official abdication of Richard, the stripping of his crown, sceptre and kingship takes place in Westminster Hall, not Downing Street. Having agreed in advance to step down, there is something which rises up inside Richard against abdication and resignation. Henry IV, Bolingbroke's line "I thought you had been willing to resign?" sounds modern. "My crown I am;" is the answer from the sad King, who feels unable to relinquish a role he feels "chosen" for by God, through birth. He clearly feels that his identity is collapsing.

Possibly, Gordon Brown feels the same? Unelected Prime Ministers are one day carrying the heat and burden of the day and the next, they are effectively out of work. The loss of support, their high salary, their staff, their country house Chequers, friends, career, must be galling: even the Iron Lady cried. Yesterday, Brown mumbled about business as usual, for Chancellor, Alistair Darling. How does one halt the juggernaut of State which, like a huge oil tanker, takes twenty miles to stop, when huge storm clouds are gathering over Europe?

Perhaps one feels one's achievements have yet to be appreciated, and might never be? There are those who, if the banks not survived the credit crunch, might not have a home (that includes me). Instead, Brown may feel he will not get the chance to alter history's rather negative assessment of him, by engineering economic recovery (if that were possible through one man). Shakespeare teaches us that there is pathos in the fall of leaders who have made of power, a mixed outcome. It was, after all, Gordon Brown who kept the UK out of the (now) endangered euro.

The Election result seems to suggest that the English feel that:

".....our sea-walled garden, the whole land
Is full of weeds; her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruin'd
He knots disordered and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars."
Richard II Act IV Sceme 1

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