Thursday, May 7, 2009

William Shakespeare, Political Analyst

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the greatest political analyst of them all? Well, if we are talking about literary gents I'll cast my vote for William Shakespeare.

Ironically, if Shakespeare were writing today, his career would be destroyed because of his rampant plagiarism. It was permissible in the early seventeenth century to take someone else's plot to an extent that would be unimaginable today. But Shakespeare used this to his advantage: not having to spend his time on creating his story, he could focus on honing his language and characters to perfection.

You can learn more about politics from Shakespeare than you can from most political science textbooks. Even more impressive, he was ahead of his time in dealing with many issues that only became important two or even three hundred years later.

Take the importance of mass politics and demagoguery, for example. At Shakespeare's time, courting the public was a secondary tactic at best. Kings had divine right; nobles determined the course of events. Yet, in Julius Caesar Shakespeare gives us Mark Antony's brilliant funeral speech for the title character who has been assassinated to stop him from becoming emperor.

Antony persuades the republican coup-makers to let him give a talk, then turns the mob against them. The assassins, who seek to empower Rome's citizens, think it enough to do the deed, Antony understands public relations. He even falsely tells the crowd that Caesar loved them so much that he left them most of his wealth. By the time Antony is finished talking, the citizens are running off to burn down the homes of the revolutionaries and murder them. No television campaign ad could compete with the effectiveness of this performance in smearing an opponent while pretending to be even-handed.

Or how about this unforgettable evaluation of what kind of man a dictator would have around him: "Let me have men about me that are fat;/Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:/Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look;/He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."

And then there's Richard III, the very definition of evil in politics, who understands himself well. Everyone is happy since his side has won the war for the throne, but he is miserable because his character is otherwise:

"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain." And he, like modern dictators in the Middle East, will use his enemy's goodness against them:

'And if King Edward be as true and just/As I am subtle, false and treacherous," the poor guy doesn't have a prayer.

Makes me think of Obama versus Ahmadinejad.

What is the greatest pre-battle speech a general ever made? If you include literature, none can equal the inspiration of King Henry V before his great victory at Agincourt:

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile... And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Who else could have written plays in the seventeenth century about racism (Othello) and antisemitism (Merchant of Venice)? In Hamlet, he shows the devastating effects of indecision; in Henry V, what it takes to be a leader; in Antony and Cleopatra, the disaster in mixing love with matters of state; and in King Lear, the impossibility of holding onto power forever. The cost of crazed ambition is presented unforgettably in Macbeth.

Shakespeare needed to be politically sophisticated to survive in an age of clashing factions and Protestant-Catholic battles. On one occasion, when the Earl of Essex was about to launch an ill-fated coup attempt, he gave Shakespeare and company a nice payment to perform Richard II, which justified removing an incompetent monarch. Queen Elizabeth was not amused and her security police put the actors through a serious questioning session. Shakespeare's colleagues kept their heads and talked fast; Essex lost his.

At first, Macbeth thought getting to the throne would be easy.

"If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir[ring].''

But he found quickly that he had to get people out of his way at the end of a blade.

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them," Shakespeare explained in Twelfth Night in defining the three routes to power.

As for propaganda, the Welsh king in Henry VI brags that he can call demons from the deep. Certainly you can call them, says his English foe, but when you call them, do they come?

In Shakespeare's plays, clever maneuvers get one into power but the price is that it doesn't last very long. His endings are basically happy in that the bad guys fall. But the stage is often littered with bodies, the bloody cost of the battle for power and glory.

His wisdom in general is still very appropriate for our day. "The play's the thing," he explained in Hamlet, "wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

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