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Friday, April 12, 2013

Margaret Thatcher And ‘King John’–Virtue, Principle, And The Perils Of Compromise

Margaret Thatcher was one of the most principled politicians of recent years.  She had a clear, distinct vision – that Great Britain could be great again – and understood that the way to reestablish its primacy was through its citizens.  She was defiant in her hatred of collectivism and compromise. There was only one way forward – through freedom, liberty, individual enterprise, and free markets.  She and Ronald Reagan were both endowed with the same visionary qualities, the same determination and steadfastness, and the same absolute conviction of the rightness of their cause.

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King John is a play about what the Bastard Faulconbridge called ‘Commodity’ – venal self interest.  Throughout the work no one stands on principle; and if they do, they quickly abandon it. There are no heroes in the play, and all ends in confusion.  The weakness of John, the self-serving insistence of the French, the defection of the English nobles, and the meddling of the manipulative Papal envoy all serve to bring down John and his kingdom.

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Shakespeare dealt with the issue of honor, virtue, and courage vs. reason and compromise many times. Coriolanus is perhaps the best example.  Coriolanus is a heroic general who believes in the greatness of Rome.  He has a clear vision – that of the importance of aristocratic rule, the celebration of the honor and valor of the soldier, and the importance of visionary leadership.  He will not listen to ‘reason’, despises compromise, and only because of his mother does he agree to negotiate with the people, ask for their approbation and support, and use a duplicitous silver tongue to win them over.  He fails because such chicanery is not in his character.

Troilus and Cressida is another play which directly discusses honor, virtue, and practicality.  Troilus believes in honor, heroism,and courage; and he wants to continue to fight the Greeks despite the fact that the Trojan War has gone on for fourteen years, killed thousands, and is at an impasse.  Hector, his brother argues for reason and temperance.  What is the value of Helen, after all, and isn’t the end of a tragic and incessant war worth a hundred Helens?

Ulysses is the political philosopher who argues for discipline and order. He is neither morally committed to the war or the achievement of its ends which have, after so many years, become indistinct if not forgotten; nor does he advocate capitulation in the name of peace. He simply wants the war to be prosecuted properly, if it must be fought; and he has nothing but scorn for Achilles who would rather be in the arms of his lover than fighting for Greece.

Thersites is a cynic who thinks that both Agamemnon and Priam are foolish for fighting a war both ignobly and poorly.  He criticizes both Greeks and Trojans for their idealism and practical realism. Neither Ulysses nor Hector are spared his scorn and calumny.

There is room for all in Troilus and Cressida – heroic idealism, practicality, order and discipline, and cynicism. Shakespeare ends the play with his own commentary, a soliloquy by Pandarus who says it all comes down to endeavor and performance.  Forget contemplating right action or morality, for most men end up with the same suppurating sores of syphilis, sweating out the cure:
As many as be here of pander's hall,
Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar's fall;
Or if you cannot weep, yet give some groans,
Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.
Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made:
It should be now, but that my fear is this,
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss:
Till then I'll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeathe you my diseases.
There are no heroes, no winners. Troilus is cuckolded, Cressida turns out to be a whore.  Achilles is a sybaritic coward, Agamemnon and Priam are narrow-minded rulers who perpetuate a senseless war, and Ulysses, the only sympathetic character in the play for his intelligence is stand-offish, diffident, and academic.

There are no heroes in King John either.  John is an antipathetic, weak, manipulating king.  Philip and Lewis of France, while initially adhering to principle in their fight for what they consider a righteous cause, soon become venal politicians looking out for their own interests and insistent on regaining the lands of Tours, Poitiers, Anjou, and Maine lost to the English through compromise. 

The Bastard Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of Richard the Lionhearted, is the most complex and interesting character in the play because of his wry, confident cynicism.  He dismisses the follies of John and Phillip just as Thersites did of the Greeks and Trojans, but he does it with more humor and good sense.  Thersites is a misanthrope while the Bastard is anything but. As he sees the follies multiply and the carnage increase, he nourishes a hope that he will be the last – and best – man standing and become King of England.

The Bastard is as eloquent as Ulysses in the exposition of his philosophy of ‘Commodity’ or self-interest. He sees that no one, whether king or commoner, can rise above thoughts of personal gain and act morally or heroically. He sees compromise not as a laudable action and one which resolves bloody conflict, but as an abnegation of principle.  He sees deal after deal made; and deal after deal broken as men and women stumble over themselves in ill-advised, short-term resolutions. In the most famous soliloquy of the play, the Bastard talks scornfully of Commodity, and how self-interest neuters any greatness in Man.  The Bastard wishes for heroism and leadership, but sees clearly that venality always wins out:
Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!
John, to stop Arthur's title in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part,
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God's own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker, that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,
Who, having no external thing to lose
But the word 'maid,' cheats the poor maid of that,
That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity,
Commodity, the bias of the world,
The world, who of itself is peised well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this Commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent. (II.1.561-580)
France was poised to act heroically and honorably “whose armour conscience buckled on/Whom zeal and charity brought to the field As God's own soldier”, but when tempted by Commodity, became weak and cowardly.  John started to act honorably by defending his right to the throne, but settled for only a partial victory.

The Bastard knows that he, too, will fall off any horse of principle he may mount when the time is right:
And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo'd me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
In fact, early on in the play the Bastard falls prey to Commodity when he suggests that the English and French postpone their hostilities, join forces to conquer the rebellious town of Angers and then return to battle.  It is not clear whether or not the Bastard suggests this compromise out of malicious playfulness – the suggestion is so ludicrous that this surely must be his reason – or based on an understanding of politics, Commodity, and human nature.  In any case, rather than stand on principle – determining who is the rightful ruler of England, John or Arthur (or himself), he kneels to compromise.

Ironically is is only the women in many of Shakespeare’s plays that have the clarity of vision and the steadfastness and courage to carry it out.  Margaret, wife of the weak Henry VI, not only cajoles and importunes her husband to act against the French, she takes over the leadership of the army, and it is she who storms the battlements of France.  Lady Macbeth is the power behind her vacillating husband.  Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus, has more Machiavellian sense of power and determination than her son. Goneril, Regan both have more determination and drive than the men they married, and certainly more than their doddering father. It is only the women who stand up to Richard III, call him what he is, and challenge his imperious and selfish designs.

Constance is a woman of the same mold and defends the right of her son Arthur to the throne like a she-bear.  She is so loud, insistent, and persistent in her demands that she is branded hysterical and mad by the men who hold the reins of power and influence, but she never loses sight of her only prize – the accession of Arthur, her son, to his rightful place as ruler of England:
If thou, that bid'st me be content, wert grim,
Ugly and slanderous to thy mother's womb,
Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains,
Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigious,
Patch'd with foul moles and eye-offending marks,
I would not care, I then would be content,
For then I should not love thee, no, nor thou
Become thy great birth nor deserve a crown.
But thou art fair, and at thy birth, dear boy,
Nature and Fortune join'd to make thee great:
Of Nature's gifts thou mayst with lilies boast,
And with the half-blown rose. But Fortune, O,
She is corrupted, changed and won from thee;
She adulterates hourly with thine uncle John,
And with her golden hand hath pluck'd on France
To tread down fair respect of sovereignty,
And made his majesty the bawd to theirs. (II.ii.43-59)
Elinor, John’s mother, is no less demanding in her defense of her son’s right to rule, but she sees more advantage in compromise than Constance.  She is willing to accept the marriage of Lewis, the Dauphin of France to John’s niece, Blanche as a way to stop an unnecessary war and to consolidate John’s and her power.

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Both women die ignominiously. We are simply told that Elinor and Constance have died.  No explanation, no ceremony, and never a second mention.  These women were individual heroes, but defined too narrowly within their own personal dramas to be transcending heroes or tragic failures.
Even the great English hero, Henry V, was not untarnished.  He had clarity of vision, singularity of purpose, and absolute confidence in his actions; but only later in the play, when he goes in disguise to meet his troops, does he find that they consider him a selfish autocrat who is putting their lives at risk because of flimsy pretense.

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In fact, there are no true heroes in Shakespeare.  Antony comes a cropper because of his age and overly romantic attachment to Cleopatra.  Othello, a potentially great man like Coriolanus, has no vision, only battlefield prowess; and his ignorance of the subtleties of human behavior does him in.  Hamlet is a temporizer who has the chance to act righteously many times but does not; and his delays contribute to the deaths of many who needn’t have died.

The lesson from King John, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus is not that heroism is a vanity, an illusion selfishly pursued.  On the contrary, Shakespeare lauds the greatness of Coriolanus, the superiority of Ulysses, and even the malevolent pursuits of Richard III and Iago; and he despises the weak and indifferent like Achilles in King John. He understands, however, that Commodity will always win; that Machiavelli’s rules of governance will always trump singularity of purpose and individual heroism.

Margaret Thatcher knew that she would run afoul of the mob, just as Coriolanus knew that the mob would never appreciate what he was doing to make Rome great; and she was as stalwart as he in her defiance of them.  She was never vengeful, as Coriolanus, was, for she knew that her radical vision, contrary as it was to decades of traditionalism and decay, would be vehemently opposed.  There are many still who resent what Thatcher did, and how she dismantled the unions and eliminated thousands of jobs; but few can criticize the result – a Great Britain which is back on the world stage. This is what distinguishes Margaret Thatcher from most political leaders who are always watching their backs, maneuvering for the political position which will be to their best advantage and as a result preside over a government of mediocrity. 

She knew, like the Bastard and Shakespeare, that history was against her. There are far more leaders who rule by Commodity than by principle, but she was willing to take the chance.  For that, Shakespeare would have applauded her.

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