"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Power and Shakespeare's Kings

George Orwell writing in 'Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool', states that there are two themes in 'King Lear'. The first:

"Shakespeare starts by assuming that to make yourself powerless is to invite an attack. This does not mean that everyone will turn against you...but in all probability someone will. If you throw away your weapons, some less scrupulous person will pick them up. If you turn the other cheek, you will get a harder blow on it than you got on the first one..."

This observation is true not only for 'King Lear' but also for Henry VI and Richard II. Henry completely misjudges York and his ambitions, and offers him a compromise - let me rule until my death, and then you can accede to the throne. Although York initially agrees, his sons, the future Edward IV and especially Richard III argue strongly against the compromise and urge their father to take the throne now.

At the same time Henry disinherits his son, thus guaranteeing the accession of the House of York. In essence, Henry has given away the store.

Richard II misjudges Bolingbroke and exiles him instead of killing him as Richard III, King John, or Henry VIII would have done. Richard knows that Bolingbroke has the support of the people and therefore a strong political base. He then unwisely confiscates the lands of Bolingbroke's father, Gaunt, thus infuriating Bolingbroke and giving him a legitimate excuse for invading England, that is, to retake the lands although it is clear to everyone but Richard that Bolingbroke is after the throne. To make matters worse, Richard invades Ireland, thus deploying his troops far from the invasion of Richard.

This theme cited by Orwell is complementary to Jan Kott's Grand Mechanism - that is, history is an inexorable cycle of power, and if the Histories are read in sequence, the same pattern of power, loss of power, and accession to power, repeats itself again and again. The Grand Mechanism is true, of course, throughout history. Kott created his theory based on his experiences in Soviet Poland and saw the inexorable rise and fall of dictators since 1917; but it obviously is true for most if not all of both Western and Eastern history.

Today's current events are no different. Perhaps the most recognizable icon of the 20th Century was 'appeasement', and Chamberlain's conviction that Hitler really posed no threat. Most governments since have, rightly or wrongly, used revulsion of 'appeasement' as a foundation for their foreign policy. No American president can be seen to give in to an enemy. In the current thinking Diplomacy is comprised of negotiation, force, and aid; but force seems to win out. If you have superior numbers, why should you give in during negotiations? The use of aid to 'win hearts and minds' is a modern invention, but its obverse is also true and demonstrated in the Histories. King John, for example, took money from the monasteries and lost the hearts and minds of the clergy and from the common people who supported them.

The theme of retaining and defending power is prevalent throughout the Histories, 'King Lear', 'Julius Caesar', 'Antony and Cleopatra', and I am sure in the remaining plays which I have not yet read ('Timon of Athens' and 'Coriolanus' in particular)). Shakespeare is no fan of Richard II, Henry VI, or Lear from a political perspective. He of course has his sympathies for Lear on a much more grand, human scale; but it is clear that his ill-advised ceding of lands and power was foolish; and I believe he is a fan of Richard III especially, for Richard embodies the power principle perfectly. Richard, as I have also written, also embodies almost perfectly Nietzsche's principles of will and amorality.

Orwell states what he considers the second theme of 'Lear':

"Give away your lands if you want to, but don't expect to gain happiness by doing so. Probably you won't gain happiness. If you live for others you must live for others, and not as a roundabout way of getting advantage for yourself".

I don't fully agree with Orwell's conclusion, for within the full scope of Shakespeare's 'king' plays, it is retention of power (i.e. lands, wealth, armies, etc.) that is rewarded at least in the short run until the wheel comes around again. There is no 'living for others'. There is selflessness in Kent, who has no ambitions for power, and although he, Edgar, and Albany will oversee Britain after Lear's death, he never sought this power or authority. Edgar also never sought power, but only the righteous defense of his legal rights.

Shakespeare is writing about historical inevitability which in turn is based on human nature - the inherent desire to gather, use, and protect power; and given this conclusion, the real heroes of the plays are the truest 'villains', the greatest of all being Richard III.

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