Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Incomparable Playright

The Making of an "English World View"

It is both intriguing and encouraging that Shakespeare seems to be making a revival.  The invention of the pop-up Globe has seen multitudes of people all around the world attending seriously good productions of plays written in (mainly) in the 1590's.  There is no literary figure to compare with Shakespeare on the Continent throughout the early modern period. 

Shakespeare grew up in a time when the biblical world-view was predominant.  This included, amongst other things, a profound belief in human nobility, on the one hand, and total depravity, on the other.  The English Reformation was well underway; it took human faults and failings very seriously.  We do not mean to imply that Shakespeare was a Reformer: on the contrary.  But he could not escape much of the world-and-life view preached and taught by the Reformers--and parts of that world-view he appears to have adopted in all seriousness. 

Consequently, in partial congruence with the Apostle Paul, Shakespeare's view of humanity was that amongst its ranks  "not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth".  [I Corinthians 1: 25f]
   His portrayal of monarchs and nobility was generally in accordance with the accounts of biblical history: most monarchs were venal, weak, imperfect, self-orientated, and unreliable.  According to Shakespeare, the royalty of his day was more of Saul's ilk, than of David's.

The Tudors and particularly the Stewarts took seriously the Divine Right of Kings.  In such an "official" climate, Shakespeare's views of the depravity of man, including monarchs, was (and remains) striking.
But most of Shakespeare's history is the opposite of propaganda: always ambivalent, often amoral, rarely idealized, often derisive, sometimes cynical, with few heroes but many villains and inadequates, much futility, no euphemism, little sign of the benign workings of Providence, no edifying message, no "grand narrative", and at best a provisional happy ending.

. . . . His portrayal of royalty . . . is far from reverential or idealized.  Showing any monarch on stage in even slightly controversial circumstances was taboo over much of Europe as late as the nineteenth century; but Shakespeare not only lets daylight in upon majesty (in Walter Bagehot's 1960's phrase) but subjects it to a withering glare, showing kings humiliated, deposed, and killed.  The plays are overwhelmingly political; the conflicts and decisions of people acting out of ambition, lust, pride, fear, revenge, jealously--and occasionally loyalty, faith, or honour ("a word," mocks Falstaff).  Their efforts and aims are often futile, absurd and meaningless.  Even the most just or glorious war brings waste, corruption, cruelty and death "stinking and flyblown."  His kings and queens are as human as his peasants--selfish, cruel, doubting, incapable, lecherous, perfidious, but rarely very chivalrous, and sacred only the grace of their subjects.  Not surprisingly, there could be political trouble, and Elizabeth I remarked balefully after one performance, "I am Richard II, know ye not that?" . . . . [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) p. 154f.]
The effect of this could not help but contribute to a general cynicism towards rulers, politicians, kings, and other grandees.  Not that the man in the pit of the Globe would be tempted to think of kings as evil and the people good--for villains and the morally challenged were found everywhere according to Shakespeare.  The "noble savage" did not exist. 

Ah, but the language of those plays! 
At the very least, the plays have left a memory of certain episodes, characters, words and phrases--"the winter of our discontent", "my kingdom for a horse", "once more unto the breach, dear friends", "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown", "Cry God for Harry, England and St George", "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers", "this other Eden . . . this precious stone set in a silver sea", --arguably the most famous eulogy of England.  Such phrases, even when misapplied, create a sense of connection with the past. [Ibid.]
Indeed.  Or so the thronging hordes attending pop-up Globes around the world would attest, even in our jaded, materialist, existentialist day--or, perhaps, because of it. 

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