Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

NYT's Kristof looks at poetry, prurience, and politics in the Court of George II.

. . . . critics began to see another subtext in "Henry V": an unblinking examination of the brutality and inevitable excesses of war, even depicting the Abu Ghraib scandal of the 15th century: Henry's order to murder French prisoners at Agincourt. Shakespeare's play can be seen as scorning the empty-headed jingoism that inflicts so much suffering as the ruler wraps himself in the flag. As Shakespeare writes in "Henry V" about wars of choice:

"But 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 a battle shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such and such a place,' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle."

A related lesson for Mr. Bush, if he has time to read Shakespeare, is the inevitability of intelligence failures. In just about every play, characters put their faith in information that turns out to be catastrophically untrue. Lear believes his elder daughters; Romeo believes that Juliet is dead; Othello believes Iago's lies.

Shakespeare begins "Henry IV, Part 2," with the character of Rumor (who could today be played by Ahmad Chalabi), and he shows how kings get in trouble by relying on partial truths or flattery spun by sycophants like Goneril Tenet and Regan Wolfowitz.

"All these figures in Shakespeare suffer from hubris, and that's what W. is suffering
from," says Kenneth Albers, a veteran Shakespearean actor who is playing Lear in

Indeed, the only person who seems to provide Shakespeare's kings with sound advice is the court fool, who cannot be punished for saying unpalatable truths because jesting is his job[*]. . . .
I encourage you to read the article in its entirety (and on the off chance you're a current CMC student reading this - take Nicholas Warner's class on Leadership in Literature and Film, a fantastic course beautifully uniting politics and the arts - on too many levels to count).

[*Think The Daily Show and comedians generally. When the prevailing political environment is hostile to truth, as is the case today, those wishing to be truthful take more creative forms. It's quietly subversive, effective, and in the long run, will prevail.]

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