17 February 2008

Shakespeare & Modern Politics

I'm just back from a lecture before the English Speaking Union of Monmouth County (two days after addressing the ESU in Greenwich, Conn., on my beloved William Henry Ireland). In Red Bank I gave a talk called "The Politics of Shakespeare, the Shakespeare of Politics." It touches on many of the themes in Becoming Shakespeare, and even steals a few paragraphs from the book (with minor adaptations). It's not at all scholarly, but it seemed to go over well enough. The opening few paragraphs:

There are few questions on which the supporters and the detractors of our president can agree, but I've managed to find one: George W. Bush is King Henry V. Not necessarily the real president, but the one who shows up in the work of a thousand spinmeisters. And not necessarily the real king, but the one who showed up in three of the plays of Shakespeare nearly four centuries ago. I'm not the first to think it up — it's the work of more journalists and critics than I can count. So common has this association become that some scholars refer to the connection between Bush and Henry as "W=V." In my talk today, though, I'd like to put this political use of Shakespeare's play in a historical context, looking both backwards and forwards.

For those who haven't read the Henry plays
in a long time, a quick refresher. The two parts of Henry IV focus on the king whose name provides the title to the play, but all the most memorable scenes focus on the king's son and his rowdy chums. That son is Prince Hal, a party animal addicted to bad company and given to playing wicked tricks on his friends, especially the fat and jolly Falstaff. Most of the time we see Hal as roisterer and ne'er-do-well. But Falstaff and the other ruffians have a serious change of fortune at the end of Part II, as the prince realizes it's time to grow up. In the most powerful scene, Hal banishes Falstaff from his presence as a sign of his new maturity. The follow-up play, Henry V, focuses almost exclusively on Prince Hal, now King Henry. There we see him standing up to the bullying French, rallying his English troops to action, himself leading his "band of brothers" against a dangerous foreign enemy.

It's not difficult to see why George W. Bush's supporters would find much in this story to appeal to them. As a young man, Bush was universally allowed to be unruly. We've never heard the details, but the president admits frankly to being an alcoholic, and rumors of serious drug use have never been denied. But, for the president's supporters, that irresponsible youth gave way to impressive maturity as it came time for him to assume the mantle of national office. As early as Halloween 1998, when there were hints that a second Bush might occupy the White House, Julian Borger wrote in London's Guardian about "The Making of a Dynasty," and saw "a sort of Texan Prince Hal putting aside his debauched youth in preparation for his ascent to power."

Not all the early allusions, of course, were quite so complimentary. In 1999 — by which time the comparison had become almost de rigueur for journalists who fancied themselves literary — the Washington Post worried, "Just how shallow is the frontrunner?" They pointed out that "Prince Hal is only charming if you know he'll ditch Falstaff and morph into King Henry V." And in December 1999, the libertarian columnist Howard Troxler criticized Bush's raucous past. Calling Bush "the Prince Hal of our time," he impatiently wondered, "How long do we indulge" him? The title of his piece leaves no doubt where he stands: "A Mighty Big Office; a Mighty Small Mind."

But the story of the shallow Hal gave way to the profound Henry V after September 11, 2001. As the nation rallied behind the president — even likening Bush on the ruins of the World Trade Center to Henry giving his stirring speech on St. Swithin's Day — the comparisons became inescapable. Probably the most famous was Michael Kramer's story for the New York Daily News on 21 September 2001. Under the headline "Prince Hal Now Henry V," Kramer declared that "George W. Bush became a leader a great nation will follow into battle with confidence." And as the "battle" changed from a metaphor to actual war — first with Afghanistan, then with Iraq — Bush's supporters returned over and over again to a plucky young man made good, a reformed wastrel, now the focus of national pride. (And it certainly didn't hurt that, in Shakespeare's play, the enemy was the arrogant French.)

But what had been a favorite comparison on the political right soon got adopted by the political left and turned against its inventors, especially as the fighting in Iraq began to strike people as less heroic than a blunder of world-historical magnitude. As the New York Daily News put it in May 2003, "This year's Shakespeare in Central Park production is about the leader of a country who diverts the people's attention away from the dubious way he came to power by invading another country. President George W. Bush? No, Henry V." The story critics like this took from Shakespeare was not about a callow young man turned into a national hero, but about a drunken and irresponsible lout thrust into a position he was unprepared for.

They also turned their attention to parts of Shakespeare's text that Bush's supporters had ignored. Henry IV stole the throne from Richard II — the thought of a ruler who owed his power to the extra-constitutional meddling by his father and his supporters began to take on a new resonance on the left after the Florida fiasco. Henry V's justification of his war with France — based on a very tenuous reading of the old Salic Law, backed up by legal scholars paid to tell the king what he wanted to hear — reminded some critics of the arguments in favor of invading Iraq. As reports of cruelty came in from Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, some began to think about Henry's speech outside the gates of the French city of Harfleur, in which he vows that "The gates of mercy shall be all shut up," and the English troops

       shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants.

Henry also notoriously orders the execution of all the prisoners of war at Agincourt, a shocking violation of the laws of war. And one of the most widely quoted bits of political Shakespeareana during the Iraq War was the exchange between Henry and one of his soldiers. Henry, traveling among his troops in disguise, muses, "I could not die any where so contented as in the king's company"; clearly looking for positive feedback from his soldiers, he adds, "his cause being just and his quarrel honourable." Just and honorable? "That's more than we know," says one of the soldiers, who goes on to worry that "if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day." This is the scene that prompted London's Observer to say, of a National Theatre production of the play in 2003, "if there is any topical resonance in Shakespeare's play, it comes from the story of a national leader going to war on highly dubious grounds and who, in the play's best scene on the night before the battle, is put on the spot by one of his common soldiers: 'The king hath a heavy reckoning to make if his cause be not good.'"

Now, it's not for me to settle the questions about the president's character and the wisdom of the war in Iraq. For one thing, I'm no more qualified to have opinions on these than anyone else here. More to the point, offering my own opinions on any of these subjects to strangers would be sure to alienate someone in this crowd, and savvy lecturers know it's foolish to offend the people who feed and transport them: it's a long walk home to Lawrenceville. I can, however, discuss the use that both the political left and the political right have made of Shakespeare's texts, starting with the obvious question: is this a fair thing to do to Shakespeare's works? When we invoke him to back up our political positions, it's as if we're claiming his authority. The question, then, might be — which position would William Shakespeare back if he were alive today? I'll be glad to tell you in detail everything that we know about Shakespeare's politics: exactly nothing. As the critic Paul Fussell writes, with only slight exaggeration, "What we actually know about Shakespeare as a person can go on a 3 x 5 card without crowding. But the writings confidently telling his life story and delineating his personality, morals, temper, and character would fill moving vans."

The problem is that almost all we have from Shakespeare is plays, and every sentiment, radical or reactionary, Protestant or Catholic, is put in the mouth of some character or other. "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," for example, wasn't spoken by Shakespeare to posterity but by Dick to Jack Cade. References to Purgatory and prayer for the dead have led many people to think Shakespeare had Catholic sympathies, but again, Shakespeare himself doesn't say these things; his characters do. And because the playwright gives us brilliant and compelling speeches on almost every side of every question, it's easy to find evidence that Shakespeare agreed with your own positions — just read long enough and you'll find something that seems to agree with you.

I can't claim to settle the question of whether this kind of appropriation or co-opting is fair, then, but even during his lifetime, Shakespeare found himself thrust into political debates, his authority being used to sell political programs that he may have admired or may have despised. He's been treated as a spokesman for every position you can imagine, and from the very beginning. Look, for instance, at his Richard II...

If you're curious, the full paper is available here.

1 comment:

MarkLWilliams said...

Nicely done. I write a book series for young readers on the march (the "Danger Boy" books from Candlewick Press) -- time travel and history.

The one I'm revising now takes the protagonists to Shakespeare's London (tho' also introduces the readers to Marlowe and Jonson).

I'd planned the book awhile, but was surprised how much the use, by Elizabethans, of torture as an instrument of the state, has become an aspect of the book.

And yes, "Richard II" is in there, too.

Not too much "Henry V," however...