Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Shakespeare's views on good government

BBC2 "Newsnight" last night discussed William Shakespeare's view of leadership and government. It was an intensely interesting topic for me. However, I noted a lack of  real knowledge of the relevant texts from his plays. I have been studying Shakespeare's plays in detail over the past months and in response to "Newsnight" I have pulled together my thoughts below:

First, William Shakespeare was neither left-wing nor a proto-egalitarian.  There are texts in 'Coriolanus' with which, I think, he may have sympathised. They suggest that ancient Athens fell because it had too much democracy.  To quote: 

"There (Greece) people had more absolute power and they nourished disobedience and fed the ruin of the State".

Shakespeare may have thought that 'people power' was a barrier to the best kind of  government which for him may have been a highly trained oligarchy - exceptionally fitted people, with a strong inner moral (Christian) core.  Of course, he knew that 'All power corrupts': any system needs checks and balances.

I believe that Shakespeare, by instinct, was a Royalist. But had he lived in 1648,  would he have viewed Charles 1st as an unwise tyrant deserving of deposition if not execution?  The question of whether one can depose a weak monarch, tyrant, or potential tyrant is addressed in several of his well-known plays such as 'Julius Caesar' and 'Richard II'. It was a hotly debated Calvinist topic, at the time.  Shakespeare favourite plot was "The Killing of the King".

So was William Shakespeare right wing or what used to be called a 'High Tory'? He certainly sees the King (leader) of England as God's deputy or minister on earth. He was also strongly nationalistic. Nationalism was Protestant in England and financially advantageous since in Elizabethan times, the European Continent ('less happier lands') was bankrupt. England would have been bankrupt too, but for the wise economic policies of Elizabeth 1st. Nevertheless, Shakespeare was not without compassion for the weak. In the Sonnets, as well as elsewhere, he expresses weariness with the evil endured by ordinary decent people. He deeply pitied 'needy nothings', the deserving destitute and 'innocence' sold into prostitution. Shakespeare had some very strong views about the anarchic elements in society.  In his day, wild crowds of apprentices in London streets were murdering innocent bystanders. Without a police force, the criminal element was the inner enemy of decent society.

He often uses the word 'commons' in a pejorative sense.  He did not mean the valiant yeomen of England and Wales, whom he viewed as noble and to which he half belonged.  They had some education and skills. By 'commons' he means another less obedient, probably largely illiterate section of Elizabethan society, the rabble, for whom he had little political sympathy, except he used some of them for comedy. 'The commons' were those who did not view their Monarch (or any Monarch) as appointed by God for the upholding of the law.  As we recall, Paul encourages all Christians to obey a ruler who upholds the sword of the law, unless that ruler wants them to disobey God.

For Shakespeare, the 'commons' easily degraded to bestiality and inhumanity by gathering together. Then, they were "the disobedient", the "hateful crowd", "the canker of the calm world", "discordant", "giddy", unstable, "vulgar", "trimmed in its own desires". He observes that the whole point of the law in "well-ordered nations" is to "curb the appetites" of the most disobedient. In addition to this, Shakespeare suggests that some, if not all young men aged between 17-23 should "sleep out" those years because of their "madness".  Marriage is seen as the only solution to curb their lusts and anti-social antics and this is possibly the reason why he clearly championed the state, rather than for reasons of happiness.

Set against this is the 'golden care' of the Monarch which breaks the sleep of the dutiful leader who, ideally, is both noble and seriously aware of being God's deputy on earth.  Their nobility is Christianity combined with merit - but in Shakespeare 's day, educated merit was mostly blue-blooded.  The main characteristics of the ideal Shakespearean leader were:  uprightness, honour, courage, ability to speak to ordinary people, resistance to the insidious poison of flattery, Christian love, divine integrity, justice and duty.  Though always true to himself, an ideal leader should not be like Coriolanus (i.e. filled with snobbery and pride). He or she must maintain a fine balance and avoid compromising their inner truth, just to get or keep a leadership role.  However, those military leaders who are too rigid in (decadent) peace are equally unsuitable.

Surely, Shakespeare would be sickened by the manipulation of modern electoral campaigns i.e. populist politicians making false promises to the "giddy" masses. We recall Bolingbroke taking off his bonnet to every millkmaid "milking" the fickle crowd. Shakespeare condemned such dishonesty because it transgressed the true self, the soul of the leader. A leader must answer to God for giving false testimony even about himself. Once such corrupt seeds are laid, the end cannot be good. 

A police state is not the Bard's ideal government but, in view of the many threats to England, I think he marginally accepted it. England had needed a very strong government, at this point.  In the end, in Henry VIII, he says that Elizabeth 1st was a great leader like Henry V. Elizabeth had kept the unity of the body of the State - due to God blessing her - albeit by creating a police state in England.  Shakespeare was well aware of Big Brother which he calls "the watchful State" - and he describes it well. He had lived and written precariously in its gaze. The State was "a body" made up of head (Leader), heart (Parliament), arms (military) and legs - its various civic functions. He views its purpose as having a single aim known as "one consent" which is presumably the safety and well-being of a Protestant state and its deserving, hard working and valiant people.

Tyranny is one form of bad government - it had not worked out for medieval England. Any tyrant needs powerful overseas friends and allies to survive at all -  in his view. A noble Prince should be "loved and feared" and if necessary by fear, keep in control the various rebellious elements within the State.  It was not good for leaders to be over-familiar with commoners. Henry V knew that, as King.

Shakespeare sees the real peril for England as the dissolution of the natural social order which he calls "degree". Then "appetite", which he calls "the universal wolf",  "feeds on itself" and the State dissolves due to wild savagery. For this reason, Shakespeare supports a society founded on what he perceived as the natural order or "degree". By "degree", he means a society (a body) in which everyone has a clear and ranked role. Roles compliment each other with due decorum, with respect embedded. In this system, the most fitted people rule, youth defers to age and so on. Ideally, it results in wise government by highly educated, trained and able advisors, the principle of "primogeniture" being upheld and the elderly being properly respected. An opposite, "unnatural" over-egalitarian society without any "degree" is summed up in his memorable image of disobedient children bashing up their parents.

There are numerous echoes of "degree" in the Old Testament. Without "degree", Shakespeare saw England as highly likely to revert to "a wilderness" which he says is its ancient nature filled again with its old inhabitants - "wolves"....

At this rate, in modernity William Shakespeare would probably be a moderately right wing, constitutional democrat with a strong interest in politics, education and the arts. He would probably respect the notion of merit, so long as 'degree' was respected. Surely he would relish the survival of 'the Crown'? He would recognise nationality as the solid body politic and for its community culture. He would be writing political plays piercing hypocrisy and uncovering behind-the-scenes manipulation of the ambitious and unprincipled . He would be flagging up lack of insight and integrity alongside the inner fears, lusts and greed of lonely and corrupt leaders. He would revel in portraying the political 'stab in the back'. He would bemoan the loss of the concept of the ruler being God's deputy, the weakening of marriage and lack of strict personal discipline. He would spend many hours at the computer, which would give him unlimited access to his beloved English now three times larger than any other language with over 1 million words. He would aim to know and use more words than anyone else, making up new ones. His highly wordy, political plays would be 'the talk of the town' and filmmakers would be clamouring to turn them into films, so he would be wealthy.  He would keep all his political views to himself and he would never campaign for anything or talk to the press. He would be intensely private.  He would know The Queen, and Prince Charles privately. He would say wise things to them about the stabilising role of monarchs but only in very courteous language. Now and then he would publish poems of great mystery, just to confuse everyone.

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