Great works of art inspire us and expand our vision. And yet, at a time when we could all use some optimism, we see the government actively discouraging university students from engaging with the humanities by hiking up the fees and theatre studies courses disappearing from our campuses. The work of our greatest writer, Shakespeare, is increasingly becoming a specialised study at both a secondary and tertiary level, and our state theatre companies are performing one of his plays every couple of years, if that.
John Bell.Credit:Daniel Boud
I want to encourage a greater awareness of Shakespeare, a reminder of his profound effect on the way we think, speak and see the world. In this time of uncertainty and instability, it is a good time to look at Shakespeare’s advocacy of good governance and order versus chaos. He had strong ideas of what constituted good order, and the consequences of bad leadership: his platform for these ideas was the theatre.
In its origins theatre had a more profound purpose other than to entertain: a quasi-magical one, to connect human beings to the spirit world, to influence the forces of nature, to explain the origins of the universe and humankind. It has retained a serious function to the present day: it can be used to explore the forces that determine what sort of society we live in, and the complex behavioural elements that shape our actions and relationships.
Shakespeare articulates theatre’s function in Hamlet: “the purpose of playing…was and is, to hold… the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time is form and pressure”. This is why Shakespeare is now mostly performed in modern dress. Just as he used past history to comment on the issues of his day, so we take him at his word and use his plays to reflect and comment on the world around us.
In 2017 a New York Public Theatre production of Julius Caesar was attacked in some press and social media for presenting the would-be tyrant as a Donald Trump look-alike. But pretty well every time the play is staged it provokes controversy. Being “stabbed in the back” is now a commonplace term, especially in the political arena, and political upheavals are frequently described as “Shakespearean”. People who have never read or seen the plays are still familiar with prototypes such as Macbeth, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear.
This doesn’t mean that Shakespeare sets out to teach; he is not didactic, but simply shows us ourselves as in a mirror. By playing out his scenarios, we come to understand ourselves more fully, analyse people’s motives, behold the consequences of our actions. So in that way Shakespeare is educational but by the way of parable, inference and demonstration.
What is behind Shakespeare’s interest in power, politics and good governance?
Like us, he lived in turbulent and uncertain times. England had just beaten off the Spanish Armada, but other attacks were imminent: maybe a crusade by a coalition of the Catholic princes of Europe to drag Protestant England back into the fold. The Pope had declared Queen Elizabeth a heretic and sanctioned her assassination. The air was thick with rumours of treason… Speaking out was a risky business, you could be imprisoned, mutilated or executed for criticising the regime.
One place you could speak out was in the theatre, but here too the audience was sprinkled with spies listening for sedition. So Shakespeare did well to locate his plays in ancient Rome, in Denmark, Italy or medieval England.
One of the main reasons for disquiet among Shakespeare and his contemporaries was uncertainty surrounding succession to the throne. Queen Elizabeth was in her final years, but, determined to hang on to absolute power. English people feared that some foreign prince or ambitious English nobleman might make a grab for the crown, leading to civil war. The country still had bitter memories of the Wars of the Roses only 100 years earlier, that contest of rival factions that tore the country apart. Shakespeare had chronicled that horrendous era in his three plays about Henry VI, culminating in a battle scene in which a son kills his father and a father kills his son, resulting in the tyranny of Richard III.
Rolling with the times: Bell Shakespeare’s Henry IV, featuring John Bell and Matthew Moore.Credit:Pierre Toussaint
Power-politics run through all of Shakespeare’s work. The Cain-and-Abel myth manifests again and again; we see brother pitted against brother in As You Like It, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and, most of all in that feast of fratricide, the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III.
Machiavelli had provided a guide book for potential tyrants, but in England his name became synonymous with treachery and self-interest. As Richard Duke of Gloucester brags on his bloody pathway to the throne, he can “put the murderous Machiavel to school!”
The political chaos so prevalent in Shakespeare’s lifetime encouraged him to envision a conservative image of order. This Utopian vision with everything and everyone in his proper place, according to degree and function, is endorsed by Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string, And hark! What discord follows!”
Henry V comes closest to Shakespeare’s ideal leader, but we mustn’t forget that he initiates a quite unnecessary war of aggression. On his deathbed his father, Henry IV, gives him advice: “If you want to secure your hold on power, shut up troublemakers and distract from domestic problems, declare war on France. It will make you a national hero and unite the country behind you”. Henry follows his father’s advice with stunning success, thereby establishing his idea of order. We have seen the same playbook used many times since in the 20th century with catastrophic results.
The opposite pole of order is chaos, the kind of chaos unleashed by the rabble-rouser Jack Cade who we meet in Henry VI. Cade is an illiterate buffoon, a liar, a braggart and a fraud. But he knows how to tap into people’s ignorance and prejudice. When Trump incited his followers to storm the Capitol he was taking a leaf out of Cade’s playbook. Here he condemns an enemy of the state, a humble teacher: “I am the broom that must sweep the realm clean of such filth as thou art…Hang him with his pen and ink-horn around his neck! The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders unless he pay me tribute…Now go some and pull down the Savoy; … down with them all! Away! Away! Burn all the records of the realm. My mouth shall be the Parliament of England!”
His followers respond enthusiastically with a cry of, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!”
But “the mob” in Shakespeare is not always as bovine as the followers of Cade. We may smile at the fickleness of the crowd in Julius Caesar, so quickly persuaded by Mark Antony to turn their anger against the conspirators. But this scene is less about the naivety of the crowd than it is about Antony’s devious and brilliant oratory. He is the populist demagogue par excellence.
US President Donald Trump at the January 6 rally at the Capitol, hours before the riot where thousands of his supporters stormed the White House.Credit:AP
Populism is as rampant and unabashed now as it ever was: we see politicians dividing the community with artificial social constructs, pitting town against country, rural and regional folk and ‘quiet Australians’ against ‘the apartment-dwelling latte-sipping urban elites’, a false dichotomy, a political stunt. A true leader will seek to unite the country rather than divide it.
We see some politicians and reactionary journalists castigating school students for their climate change activism. And we see politicians all around the world embracing or denying scientific advice, cherry-picking the bits they want to hear, according to political self-interest. But in many places, it wins votes.
In Australia today (and more so in America) we have to decide how much power we are prepared to cede to government and how to balance that with individual liberty. The present pandemic has brought that to a head, with protests (some of them violent) against lockdown and vaccination programs.
Anarchy and tyranny are making a comeback: we see autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping extending their hold on power, with China making the most of the defeat of the US and its allies in Afghanistan. While China snuggles up to the Taliban, the US, Britain and Australia have to eat humble pie and recognise this terrorist organisation as a legitimate government. International terrorism has been given a new lease of life. So we look to the man at the top for inspiration.
In Shakespeare’s day, the existing order placed a king at the top. But this structure was only human and therefore fallible and had inherent weaknesses. Order depends on the monarch being wise, temperate and virtuous, one who takes advice from sage councillors. Too often Shakespeare’s kings ignore good advice and shut down criticism.
The kings themselves are far from perfect. All of Shakespeare’s kings except Henry V has some fatal flaw; King John is a treacherous murderer; Richard II is deluded by a sense of entitlement; Henry VI is weak and vacillating; and Lear a victim of senile arrogance.
Faced with the political order of the day, Shakespeare could only hope that commonsense and decency would ultimately prevail in all attempts at good governance. Absolute monarchy and its attendant shortcomings seemed to be set in stone. Shakespeare could have hardly have believed that a mere 33 years after his own death, England would execute its King and briefly establish a Commonwealth.
Nor could he have imagined the form of democracy enjoyed in some parts of the world today. That was another 200 years into the future with a proclamation of liberty, equality and fraternity.
This is an edited extract from John Bell’s ABC Boyer Lectures. His first lecture will air on ABC TV on Saturday at 12.30pm and the entire series will be broadcast on Radio National every Sunday in November.
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