Friday, 16 December 2011

Monarchy in Shakespeare's tragedies

Part of teaching literature is making students aware of the cultural and historical context of the work they study. So like any other teacher of English when "doing Shakespeare" I have told students that to understand Shakespeare's great tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear are the ones I have most often introduced with this explanation) they have to understand the concept of the Divine Right of Kings. Elizabethan people, I tell them, saw the world very differently to us. They believed that the monarch was there by divine right, and so represented the people's only direct line of communication with God. I show them, and sometimes get them to copy out, this diagram:
I go on to tell them that in all three of the great tragedies, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear, the rightful King's departure throws the country into chaos, because the people's connection to God has gone. I even sometimes give them another diagram to show this situation:
Of course there is a lot of truth in this explanation. With the King gone Macbeth's Scotland descends into bloody chaos, a chaos symbolised in Lear's England by the central storm, and in Hamlet's Denmark "the time is out of joint." A character in Macbeth ("Lord" in Act 3 scene 6) puts it very clearly when expressing his hope that the English army will restore the rightful monarch:
"That, by the help of these--with Him above
To ratify the work--we may again
Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,
Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,
Do faithful homage and receive free honours:
All which we pine for now."

However, like almost everything in Shakespeare, I don't actually think it is as straightforward as that. Take the idea of order being restored at the end of the play by the rightful monarch being restored. On the face of it, all three of these plots end like that, but look more closely and the picture is less clear.

In Macbeth, Macduff greets Malcolm at the end with "Hail, king! for so thou art" and Malcolm concludes the play with a statesmanlike (if rather brief and unpoetic) summary of what he will do to restore Scotland to order. So what happened to Fleance? Both the witches' prediction ("Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none") and Macbeth's vision in Act 4 scene 1 have prepared us for Banquo's son to start a dynasty of Kings of Scotland (leading to James I and VI of course), but at the end he is forgotten.

In Hamlet the end is even stranger when, near the end of the marathon Act 5 scene 2 the dying Hamlet, just before his famous last words "the rest is silence", says "I do prophesy the election lights/ On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice." Fortinbras who? you might ask. This is a character who has had one appearance on stage so far, with half a dozen lines in Act 4 scene 4. In King Lear, it is Lear himself who is reinstated when, near the end of another marathon last scene, Albany says "for us we will resign,/During the life of this old majesty,/To him our absolute power." However mad old Lear, now insane with grief over the death of his daughter Cordelia, seems neither to know or care.

So if the concept of the rightful monarch is so central to the Elizabethan world view that their removal causes chaos and bewilderment, why does Shakespeare in these three great works treat the reinsitution of the rightful monarch with something approaching contempt?

The answer I think lies in another tragedy, Anthony and Cleopatra. Though set in the ancient Roman empire this play explores the notion of Kingship, but looks at it from the other side. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra are very keen at the end to present Mark Anthony as "the greatest prince o' the world" (Mark Anthony) whose "legs bestrid the ocean" (Cleopatra). Yet Mark Anthony actually feels that "I am Anthony:/ Yet cannot hold this visible shape" and when Cleopatra makes her famous speech about him she makes it to Dolabella and concludes "Think you there was, or might be, such a man/As this I dream'd of?" to which Dolabella answers "Gentle madam, no." Partly , Shakespeare is simply exploring Anthony and Cleopatra's self-delusion, but partly I believe he is saying that the very concept of Kingship is an illusion. These people are simply that: flawed and vulnerable people. The image of the "Emperor Anthony" whose "face was as the heavens" and whose "legs bestrid the ocean" is simply a fantasy that we create to fulfill our need for great leaders.

In fact, Hamlet and King Lear appear to me to explore a view that a King might be essential to the commonwealth, but being a good king is not the same as being a good person- in fact it is almost the opposite. Fortinbras says of Hamlet that "he was likely, had he been put on,/To have proved most royally" yet nothing could have been farther from the truth. Although he recognises that "the time is out of joint" he goes on to say "O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!" and certainly over the course of the play he is hardly very effective in doing so. If anything his actions contribute to the chaos: he upstes and frightens Ophelia to such an extent that she is driven to suicide; he murders Polonius for no good reason, and expresses no remorse at doing so; and he disrupts Ophelia's funeral by jumping into the grave and wrestling with her brother Laertes.

Hamlet's model for Kingship is Fortinbras, who he sees as being "with divine ambition puff'd". He admires him for the fact that he has risked his kingdom "even for an eggshell" and concludes
"Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake"
These images, of a bubble ("puff'd"), an eggshell and a straw are redolent of the insubstantiality of Kingship that Anthony saw just before his death.

In fact you could argue that the character in Hamlet who demonstrates best the strong, statesmanlike leadership required in a time of crisis is Claudius. Whilst Hamlet's pretend madness is sowing unease and fear in an already precarious kingdom, Claudius acts decisively. He resolves the tricky diplomatic crisis with the Norwegians and brings the volatile and dangerous Laertes to say "Lord, I will be ruled." It could even be argued that his sending of Hamlet to England and a quiet assassination was a shrewd move: this was a murderous lunatic after all. The circumstances of Claudius' removal as King are also hardly consistent with the notion of the restoration of the Divine order of human affairs. The last scene of Hamlet is almost farcically chaotic, with Hamlet's fatal stabbing of Claudius just one in a series of deaths that leaves the stage cluttered with bodies.

However it is in King Lear that Shakespeare develops most clearly the idea that good Kingship is incompatible with true humanity. When Lear renounces his kingdom at the start he is very clearly acting as a King. The formality and pomp of Act 1 scene 1 make it clear that this is a calculated political move, designed to leave Cordelia, allied with either France or Burgundy, in effective control. Unfortunately Cordelia refuses to play ball and Lear's furious response is what leads to his downfall. The seeds are clearly there when he tells his sons-in-law "This coronet part betwixt you"- a clearly concerning symbol of division.

It could be argued that it is Lear's human weakness here that leads to the destruction of the kingdom, but I would argue that in Act 1 he is acting as a King, not a human being. His speech is grandiose and redolent of power, in contrast with Cordelia's simple "Nothing." His denunciation of Cordelia is inhuman in its viciousness, and significantly full of images of exactly the sort of supernatural chaos and overturning of the natural order that Shakespeare's audience most feared:
"For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter."

What the play explores is Lear's progress from this point, the highest in terms of his kingly power yet the lowest in terms of his humanity, to the last scene where he dies, wishing with true and heartbreaking humanity that Cordelia was not dead.
"Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!" [Dies]
It is significant that at the end he echoes Cordelia's "nothing" with the words "No, no, no life! ... Never, never, never, never, never."

The turning point is the storm of Act 3. It is here that he reaches the nadir- stripped of power and influence, impotent with rage, surrounded by madmen and fools and overwhelmed by the furious power of nature he comes to the realisation that "unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal" and casts off his clothes. Yet his speeches are not all insane ravings. It is here also that he comes to think about the
"Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?"
and recognises that
"I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,"

What happens to Lear in the storm would clearly be characterised nowadays as a breakdown, yet it is also his redemption. However it is vital to understand that he is redeemed only when the last vestige of his kingship has gone. When he wakes up in Act 4 scene 7 he describes himself as a "very foolish, fond old man." His regal certainty has all gone, but despite his tentative self doubting, his judgment is now sound. He recognises Kent and Cordelia (though he does not believe his own eyes)
"I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant"
and asks them to "forget and forgive: I am old and foolish"

So by the end the concept of kingship is seen as almost irrelevant to Lear, and therefore to the audience. The decisive battle between France and England is dismissed with a couple of "alarums" offstage and Lear simply does not notice his reinstatement as King. He does talk of his former life in his last long and coherent speech, and I think what we see is a mixture of nostalgia and contempt for the life of the court:
"No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon."

So does all this mean that the diagram I show students is worthless, or that cultural and historical context are irrelevant to the study of literature? Not at all. It is just that, in this as in most things, the picture is not as simplistic or clear as it might initially appear. Yes, I believe that the audience of Shakespeare's day had a powerful sense that the loss of a strong and righteous King was dangerous to the stability of the country, and Shakespeare reflected that feeling. Yet this was also the country where the thousand-year rule of the established Church had been rocked, principally by the publication of the Bible in English and this was the country that was shortly to sow the seeds of revolutionary fervour by executing its King. I believe that in Lear and Hamlet at least you can see an exploration of that unease with the nature of kings, alongside a recognition of the necessity of Kingship.

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