Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shakespeare and the Demands of Kingship

Idling through Harold Goddard's admirable essays on Shakespeare, I happened on one I don't think I had read before: his discussion of King John, Grant that KJ might be a lesser Shakespearean effort; still, even the least of Shakespeare is better than the best of almost anybody else. And Goddard, as always, has something interesting to contribute.  The play, Goddard asserts, "is built around a theme that Shakespeare never thereafter lost sight of.  The theme is close to the heart of nearly all the other History Plays, both English and Roman; it is essential to Hamlet; it culminates in King Lear; it echoes through  The Tempest."

What  theme?  For the moment, Goddard ducks the issue: "this is not the place to back up these assertions in detail."  But I think he get his point. The theme, I suspect he might say, is the nature of kingship, and in particular the implications of placing the crown into the hands of a man who is Not Up to the Job.  John himself, of course--"like a bewildered  child in the night," as Goddard says. But also Henry VI, central to (if hardly the protagonist of) the three plays that may mark the beginning of Shakespeare's career.  And also a more interesting man in a better play: Richard II, per Goddard, "the most subtle psychological analysis that Shakespeare had made up to this point."  The remarkable fact is that Richard, unlike Henry or John, is not a cipher as a human being.  Richard is a poet, a man of arresting imagination, but  he never learns how to escape his own imagination to grasp the realities of power.

It's almost a commonplace to see Richard as a prefiguring of Hamlet, and I think Goddard insight offers the key:   Gielgud called Hamlet "a great ruh-nay-sance prince," and he is all of that.  But he shies away from kingship and brings unspeakable misfortune down on the heads of himself and so many others.

Here I want to press beyond Goddard. In some superb lectures, Peter Saccio argues that the Henry IV plays are studies in the nature of kingship.  Young  Prince Hal finds himself presented with various models of kingship: young Harry Percy, impulsive and a man of action but unable to control his own passions; Falstaff, the the great cosmic sink of pleasure and irresponsibility--and Hal's own father, Henry IV, effective enough to grasp a crown but still querulous and insecure.  Hal rejects them all;  indeed it is not much of a stretch to say that both Harry and Falstaff die at Hal's hand.  He fashions a model of kingship all his own--perhaps the only fully convincing kingship in all of Shakespeare.

We can go further: in Antony and Cleopatra, we see Antony bathed in lust and luxury; we may forget that he came within a hair's breadth of the throne; we may forget it, but the man who bested him did not.  It is Octavian, soon to be unchallenged emperor in his own right, who remembers Antony in his moment of steadfastness and resilience:
Thou didst drink
The stale of horses and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at. ...
Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou brows├Ęd.
And everybody who did Shakespeare in high school will remember that Antony could beguile a crowd in a style of which his peer Brutus was utterly incapable.

And I think Goddard is right to include Lear: vulnerable, petulant, bewildered Lear who doesn't seem to understand the relationship between the realities of power and the trappings. Which may be enough to bring us back to Richard II and, also to his gardener, the man charged with keeping order in his kingly estate:
O, what pity is it,
That he who had not so trimm'd and dress'd his land
As we this garden!   ...
Had he done so, himself  had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.
[Almost alone among common folk kn Shakespeare, this yokel speaks in blank verse.]  Shakespeare cares about kingship, and the responsibilities of rule, and the terrible consequences of men who are not up to to the job.  Comparisons with current events are left as an exercise to the student.

1 comment:

Ken Houghton said...

"And everybody who did Shakespeare in high school will remember that Antony could beguile a crowd in a style of which his peer Brutus was utterly incapable."

And those of us of a certain age or so remember well the English teacher who noted wryly that this was true only in ShakespeareWorld.