Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Greatest-Hits Shakespeare Guide to Donald Trump



            I started with what to a long-time student of William Shakespeare's plays was pretty obvious: Donald J. Trump was a post-modern version of England's late medieval king, Richard II, and I'll reprint at least one crucial speech on that topic to end this "Guide," but as time went on — as I write, we're already a whole month into Mr. Trump's Presidency — I found other ways in which the man recycled some major Shakespearean characters, and themes.
            In terms of body-type, fiscal irresponsibility, and relationship to facts, the key precursor to Mr. Trump was Sir John Falstaff of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays, except fat, self-interested Sir John really did have the best words, and in Shakespeare's second tetralogy of History Plays he's the most notable philosopher. Falstaff asks, "What is honor?" and concludes that it's a mere word. That's too simple an answer, and Shakespeare's doesn't let it stand uncontested — but at least Falstaff asks the question, which makes him a far more ethically serious character than most of the Machiavellians and romantics that are his respectable social betters.
            Falstaff is a dreamer of sorts: a dreamer of a world centering around Falstaff, and Shakespeare makes it clear that however much we need such dreams — and Falstaff as an energetic Lord of Misrule — those dreams merge seamlessly with Falstaff as a con artist and not just a liar but a shameless, playful liar, for whom truth, like honor, is just a word, and just one option. Playing along a carefully-measured bit, Prince Hal catches Falstaff (temporarily) in contradiction and accuses him with: "These lies are like their father that begets them; gross as a mountain, open, palpable" (1H4 2.4.212-14).
            Sound familiar?
            Falstaff in his tavern, even Falstaff as highway robber, represent(s) a necessary principle — fun, companionship — and are relatively harmless. That's relative, though, to men for whom the theft of crowns doesn't mean the coin called "crowns" but the headgear, and the royal rule such crowns signify. Relative to men who usurp thrones and undermine the whole idea of legitimacy and fight civil wars — relative to such generators of body-counts, Falstaff is harmless; but you don't want him in power, or as a power at a royal court or as a model for dealing with the facts of the world.
            Give Falstaff some power, and you have a character from an earlier play about a later Henry: Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part 2, not a would-be misleader of a royal youth — Falstaff with Prince Hal — but as a corrupt leader of low-born men with legitimate grievances.

*

            Shakespeare was no democrat, and if he were, he'd keep his mouth shut about it (see gory details of "drawing and quartering," the punishment for males for high treason ["For reasons of public decency" — and more direct anatomical considerations — "women […] were instead burned at the stake"]). Moreover, the Clown of Shakespeare's company had to have a comic role, however brief, as some sort of comedian, and a long, difficult play like 2 Henry VI needed occasional laughs; and on esthetic and philosophical grounds a play about rebellion and civil war on the highest level of society could do with a parallel plot among the lower social levels. Anyway, Cade's rebellion is handled comically, but it's not some sort of dumb-ass "comic relief" or a non-serious part of the play, a radical distinction between "comic" and "serious" being a modern perversion.
            Anyway, the rebels are funny, and one of them — Dick, the Butcher — gets the great line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" (4.2.69). Cade is a very common commoner, but claims royal descent; he is for equality and communism but would be king; and when Dick the Butcher suggests to him that "[…] the laws of England" should "come out of your mouth," Cade agrees and soon — after being mocked in stage-whispers by the more wise-ass among his followers — states "I have thought upon it; it shall be so. Away, burn all the records of the realm! My mouth shall be the parliament of England" (4.7.4-14).
            The laws of England were made by the well-to-do mostly for the well-to-do and increasingly enforced by well-to-do or downright rich local big shots. So there is something to be said for Cade's rhetorical question and complaint,


However …. However, immediately after this comment on the misrule of law, there is the dark comedy of Cade's trying a non-lawyer but also a non-laborer.

Enter some, bringing forward the Clerk of Chatham,

The clerk of Chatham: he can write and read and cast accompt [i.e., handle the arithmetic of simple accounting].

[ * * *]

Nay, he can make obligations [draw up bonds], and write court-hand.



ALL

          [Glosses throughout based on those in The Pelican Shakespeare (1969)]

And soon Cade's followers take a bigger prize, a high official and a Lord, active in both foreign affairs in France and in tax collecting in England. Again, though, Shakespeare's Jack Cade wanders off and on from legitimate complaints of poor Englishmen and significantly-worded promises of reform to what may be deeper concerns.


Cade can allude to the time when Adam worked the land and there were no gentlemen (4.2.120-22), but he will accept hierarchy — if he can be at the top. By Shakespeare's time, draining fenland was an issue in England, but Cade wouldn't know or care much about draining swamps and uses an older image: he'll be the royal new broom that will sweep clean the royal court of "such filth" as Lord Say, who has corrupted the young by encouraging education and literacy. The nasty corruption to be cleaned up, in Cade's proto-populist view, is such anti-Christian activity as grammar.
            Cade is a cleverly foul-mouthed, lawless authoritarian who offers hope for redress of genuine grievances of the commons but has no intention of delivering. What he does deliver immediately is an attack on elites, with that attack going down the social scale to the level of clerk — a higher rank than nowadays but still someone who worked for a living: an attack on elites with "elite" associated with filth and with the treasonous corruption of spreading education.
            Donald Trump is similar in his wondering speech, anti-intellectualism, and promise of radical reform under a charismatic leader unbound by not just clerks —think bureaucrats — but tradition and perhaps the law itself. Trump, however, so far has been less violent, more successful in his political project, and a whole lot less funny.

*

            Basically, though, Donald J. Trump is the Celebrity-King and closest to England's King Richard II. As a youngster, the historical Richard courageously met with leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt and lied his royal ass off promising freedom and redress of grievances. He soon suppressed the revolt and sent the serf contingent back to serfdom, promising them they'd be oppressed even more than before. 

            In his Richard II (1597), Shakespeare deals with Richard later in Richard's life, as Richard moves to his fall. Not with disinterest (I'll note with a double negative), Shakespeare acknowledges and even stresses that kings must be actors. Richard, however, comes to live the part and starts to believe what had become by Shakespeare's time pretty standard royalist propaganda on the Divine Right of Kings. King Richard is into his own beautiful words — he really is good at language — and gets lost in those words. He loses out to a man of few words and a relatively early member of "the reality-based community": that man of facts and opportunist action, Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV.

            As king, Henry IV gives good but pretty standard Machiavellian advice to his son, who goes on to become Henry V and outdo his dad in more sophisticated Machiavellian kingship. Henry IV isn't into straightforward speech, but here's his analysis of Richard for his son's benefit, and ours.

HENRY IV TO PRINCE HAL

The hope and expectation of thy time
Is ruin'd, and the soul of every man
Prophetically doth forethink thy fall.
Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney'd [banal] in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder'd at;
That men would tell their children 'This is he;'
Others would say 'Where, which is Bolingbroke?'
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress'd myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new;
My presence, like a robe pontifical [shown only rarely],
Ne'er seen but wonder'd at: and so my state [formal appearances],
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast
And won by rareness such solemnity.
The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin [literally: twigs] wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded [= debased] his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns
And [* * *] Grew a companion to the common streets,
Enfeoff'd himself to popularity;
That, being daily swallow'd by men's eyes,
They surfeited with honey and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little
More than a little is by much too much.
So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes;
But rather drowsed and hung their eyelids down,
Slept in his face and render'd such aspect
As cloudy men use to their adversaries,
Being with his presence glutted, gorged and full.
(1 Henry IV 3.2.39-84, from MIT Shakespeare on line 1H4)



            Prince Hal in 1 Henry IV, brings down one of Falstaff's brilliant flights of fancy with the weight of evidence, with facts and logic. His father had brought down a king taken up with far more dangerous delusions about royal power and prowess. My expectation as of early 2017 is that Donald Trump will undermine himself as a bad actor — both meanings intended — with delusions of total power, and will be brought down or brought into line by hard facts, and hard-facts people in "the reality-based community." Or he'll become an oddly inarticulate, uncharismatic charismatic leader of a mass movement that will, in Steve Bannon's words, oversee the "deconstruction of the administrative state"; AND/OR he and his inner circle will realize the possibilities of drafting the clerks, so to speak, rather than hanging them, Jack Cade style, and using the apparatus of the administrative state to exert power. Heading off to his downfall, Sir John Falstaff relishes the thought of revenge on those who've failed to admire him and want to keep him within bounds: "The laws of England are at my commandment. Blessed are they that have been my friends, and woe to my lord chief justice!" (2 Henry IV 5.3.131-35). Woe, woe to America's poor and to the next couple generations if the Trump Rebellion does get much of the Federal bureaucracy "deconstructed"; woe to them and far more people if Trump and Bannon coopt the more fearsome parts of the apparatus of the US State and law and absorb them into a Trumpian movement and party that will reshape reality to Mr. Trump's liking.

No comments:

Post a Comment