Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Old School: Shakespeare on Tyranny

     I’m old school, I’ll admit. History and literature matter – or at least they did, and should. We haven’t yet constructed our nation so that people only learn skills. Poetry, art, music, science, civics, all those seemingly useless subjects we learn in school are in the curriculum so we might be wise, and even good, and understand ourselves and the march of history with a deeper perspective. In our unsettled, confused and confusing day, recourse to old school might help us. Here's what we used to call a "book report."

     Stephen Greenblatt, a scholar at Yale who’s written a couple of other stellar books I’ve read (The Swerve and Will in the World), published one recently called Tyrant, exploring what Shakespeare had to say in his plays about the nature of power taken to excess. On the surface, you might jump to the conclusion he’s alluding to our President. Yet, in plays like Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Henry VI, Shakespeare dramatized historical figures from the distant past, carefully avoiding writing about any ruler or politicians within even 100 years of his own lifetime. Greenblatt’s point is that power is power, and history repeats itself (although he never mentions any ruler or politician within 100 years of today!). If there are lessons for us, they aren’t about any one person, but how power happens all around us in every place. John McCain’s death has raised questions about what kinds of leaders we have, and want. Shakespeare has some warnings for us.

     A few of Greenblatt’s summary thoughts are intriguing: “Shakespeare’s plays probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even self-interest. Why would anyone be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to truth? Why does evidence of mendacity, crudeness or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers?” “The disaster of tyranny could not happen without widespread complicity.”

     “Indeed, something in us enjoys every moment of his ascent to power. There is a touch of comedy in the tyrant’s rise, catastrophic as it is. The people he has pushed aside are themselves compromised or corrupt. It is satisfying to see them get their comeuppance, and as we watch the schemer connive his way to the top, we are invited to take a kind of moral vacation.” “Much of the pleasure of his winning derived from its wild improbability.” Most assuredly, “some of the dangerous qualities found in a potential tyrant may be useful.” Shakespeare “did not believe that the common people could be counted upon as a bulwark against tyranny. They were, he thought, too easily manipulated by slogans, cowed by threats, or bribed by gifts to serve as reliable defenders of freedom.”

     Anger, in the people, as with the ruler himself, fuels tyranny. With York and Somerset (in Henry VI), “seeking power becomes itself the expression of rage: I crave the power to crush you. Rage generates insults, and insults generate outrageous actions, and outrageous actions heighten the intensity of the rage. It all begins to spiral out of control.” York indeed declares “I will stir up in England some black storm.” The crowd, in a frenzy, shouts “Let’s kill the lawyers.”

     Greenblatt summarizes Richard III’s character: “the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting he can do whatever he chooses. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no sense of shared humanity. He is not indifferent to the law; he hates it because it gets in his way… He is a bully. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. These skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight. His power includes the domination of women.”

     Of Macbeth: he has “a compulsive need to prove his manhood.” He wants flattery, confirmation and obedience.” Caesar’s famous line, expressing his worry about Cassius? “Let me have men about me that are fat, such as sleep a-nights.” King Lear insists that he is “more sinned against than sinning.” He can brook no disagreement, and lives in the grip of fantasy. “A tyrant does not need to traffic in facts or supply evidence. He expects his accusation to be enough. Anyone who contradicts him is either a liar or an idiot.” For him, “loyalty does not mean integrity, honor or responsibility. He means an immediate, unreserved confirmation of his own views and a willingness to carry out his orders without hesitation. When an autocratic, paranoid, narcissistic ruler sits down with a civil servant and asks for his loyalty, the state is in danger.”

     What the people do not realize in King Lear is that “it is extremely dangerous to have a state run by someone who governs by impulse. An impulsive narcissist, accustomed to ordering people about, should not have control even of a very small army.” Who suffers in the end? Everyone. That section in Macbeth I had to memorize in high school doesn’t speak of the meaninglessness of life, but the horror of life under tyranny: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage… It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”

     Theologically, of course, much is signified in our fawning over whoever touts our political ideology and panders to our biased ways of thinking. God yearns for leaders, and followers, who are humble, who are holy, from whom truth is essential, who are driven by love and hope not fear or anger. Now that's really old school, from the greatest piece of literature, the history of God's dreams for us.

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