Here and there – A feminine view of Shakespeare

 

Have you ever wondered if Macbeth wanted to kill his own soul?  Well, the phrase does have a ring to it.  And what about his wife?  If killing your soul means wiping out your humanity, Lady Macbeth went at it full bottle in one of the most chilling speeches of our stage.  And if we don’t think that Macbeth succeeded, it looks like his wife may have – although she had enough soul left to go mad at what she had done.  In the end, Macbeth himself is reduced to a deluded chorus and his wife has collapsed trying to hold his husk together.  Life for him is a tale told by an idiot that means nothing.  Does, then, his evil savour of the banality that caught the eye of Hannah Arendt?

Germaine Greer made that remark about Macbeth in her book Shakespeare, A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.  Greer had got a Ph D at Cambridge on Shakespeare.  The book is maddeningly academic at times and too abstract or remote for the series it is part of.  The chapter headings are, after Life – Poetics, Ethics, Politics, Teleology and Sociology.  The part on King Lear is headed ‘A vision of entropy.’  I looked up ‘entropy’ and I am no wiser; nor am I clear why the comedies come under Sociology.  But when Greer speaks plainly, we can get provocative insights – as with that remark about Macbeth.  Let us look at some others.

There is a fearful amount of manipulation going on in The Tempest.  It goes on at many levels – even the idiot drunks get someone to work over – they get poor Caliban on the bottle.  (It’s as hilarious as the scene in Die Entfuhrung.)  But have you thought that at the end of the show the great manipulator may be little more than a pitiful wreck?  Greer comments on the ‘doggerel’ of the Epilogue.

Prospero is now so feeble that he cannot get himself off the stage… His helplessness could not be more remorselessly conveyed.  Neither Prospero nor Shakespeare is so much bidding farewell to the stage as begging to be released from it and pardoned for any evil done during his reign.  The grandeur of this act of utter humility is staggering; the vein of anxiety running through the play, about the roughness of the magic, the fragility of innocence, the godlike power of the creators of illusory worlds, the irresistible tendency of man to debauchery rather than improvement, the blindness and self-indulgence of intellectuals, has cropped out, as the defrocked hierophant begs our intercession to save his soul.

(You, too, can look up ‘hierophant’ – is it a kind of ailment that leads some people to show off like this?)

When we get to Othello, we get ‘the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated and inconsistent.’  That seems to me to be hopelessly wide and abstract, and dangerously close to that ‘motiveless malignity’ that another critic has been unfairly rubbished for.  But Greer is surely right to comment on the kind of ‘complicity’ that develops between Iago and the audience (that is expressly invited by Richard III and the Bastards) and his ‘mad inventiveness in luring Rodrigo and Cassio to their doom.’  We are reminded that like Don Giovanni, Iago is not selfish – he is prepared to spread his nastiness around.

The author is also right to observe that ‘because he is entertaining, scholars persist in finding excuses for Falstaff, forgetting perhaps that the Vice was always an ingratiating, lively and amusing fellow.’  Sir Anthony Quayle knew more about Falstaff than most, and described him as ‘frankly vicious.’

Have you noticed how much spying and deception goes on in Hamlet?  It may be a play for our time – what Greer calls ‘a guided tour through a lying world.’  Elsinore looks like one big masked ball, albeit with a Stalinist air, and our hero tells us immediately that he is not there just for show or to play their games.  He doesn’t want to ‘seem’ anything.  He is there to bring healing to a sick nation.  Must he die to do so?  Is this a redemption story – like, say, Billy Budd, where we see Claggart’s ‘disdain of innocence’?  After Hamlet learns of his father’s murder by the man now sleeping with his mother, does the playwright prefigure The Last Temptation of Christ?

The time is out of joint.  O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

The hero has forsworn personal revenge, we gather, but Greer says that ‘he goes towards his death in a Christian spirit of resignation.’ Well, he didn’t know he was going to die, but just what do we think lay behind the providence in the fall of this sparrow?  If this all sounds fanciful, reflect on what my favourite critic, Tony Tanner, said in introducing the big four tragedies:

I think the problem of violence is central to tragedy and that, in some tentative sense, we can think of the tragic drama as a form of ritual sacrifice, and the tragic hero or protagonist who goes to his death as bearing some relationship to the figure of the scapegoat or surrogate victim.

In the course of her diverting discussion, Greer refers to the ‘heroic’ doubting of Hamlet and says: ‘The drama of Protestantism in its finest hour was the heroism of insisting upon the sovereignty of the individual conscience’.  Well, ‘sovereignty’ has now been taken up by snake oil salesmen, who prey on the gullible, and ‘heroic’ in this context reminds me of its use by Kenneth Clark about the David of Michelangelo – another figure that I find to be frankly vicious.

Greer sees Lear as raging against the dying of the light and says that ‘King Lear becomes heroic when he is reduced to naked tramphood, tottering about the bare stage talking at cross purposes like Vladimir to Estragon….  Lear stands at the head of a line of nobodies simply struggling to survive…’ On Richard II, she refers to the famous remark of Queen Elizabeth I, ‘I am Richard, know ye not,’ and acutely observes:

He conducts his own deposition from centre stage, reducing Bolingbroke, whose heroic stature has dominated the play so far, to a Pilate figure… He dies heroically, while the erstwhile hero of the play is reduced to equivocation and cowardice by the demands of policy.

But let us go back to Macbeth, because he might be another hero for our time.  Greer says of Macbeth that ‘his self-delusion is wilful’.

The consequence of his terrible deed is that now, even when he tells the truth, he has to be lying.

Had I but died an hour before this chance,

I had liv’d a blessed  time; for, from this instant,

There’s nothing serious in mortality;

All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;

The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees

Is left this vault to brag of.

This is Macbeth’s feigned lament for the death of Duncan: he says it hypocritically, but every word of it is true.

Well there is an awful lot of wilful self-delusion in this world now, a terrifying amount of lying, and a frontal assault on the very idea of truth.  In that frightful prison called Denmark, we are not sure what state of mind Hamlet claimed to be in when he proclaimed his love for a woman, whom he would drive mad, with the words ‘Doubt truth to be a liar.’  But we do know that Hamlet did, although again while feigning madness, say ‘To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand’.

That sad Danish nightmare – dreamed up by an Elizabethan playwright – now darkens the whole of the Western world. And do we see any who look fit to ‘set it right’?

And since we speak of salesmen, liars, and the death of truth, remember this – the witches sold Macbeth a pup, as dud a pup as the one that Satan sold to Eve.

Here and there – The Wars of the Roses on the BBC

 

In 1964, the year of the Demons’ last flag, the BBC made a televised recording called The Wars of the Roses.  It consisted of a heavily edited version of four plays: Henry VI Parts I, 2, and 3, and Richard III.  The editing didn’t involve just cutting – new dialogue was added.  You can if you like try to spot the additions.  I couldn’t be bothered (and I suspect that my ear may be as dodgy as my palate).  The issue may in one sense be sterile, since it is unlikely that anyone will chance their arms by putting on the whole of the Henry VI trilogy in this country – they don’t try it often in England.  We get either an abridgement, or nothing.

This TV show was a huge undertaking.  The set was both massive and novel, and the cast was of the kind called ‘stellar’ in the popular press, although the producers were prepared to chance their arms.  The show was recorded over eight weeks with many stars who had been involved in a recent Stratford production of the four plays.

One object of the production was to demonstrate the relevance of many themes of the plays to modern politics.  The director, Peter Hall, said:

I became more and more fascinated by the contortions of politicians, and by the corrupting seductions experienced by anybody who wields power.  

The RSC issued a three CD set of the trilogy in 2016.  The show was shot in black and white and its grainy appearance lacks the definition of High Noon, but it is a great and historical production.

Each of the three parts is punishingly long – far too long to be taken in one hit in comfort.  When the BBC replayed the series, they did so in eleven parts.  The truth is that all four of these plays are too long, at least for Australian audiences.  Many years ago, I saw the RSC do the Full Monty on Richard III at the Barbican, and it was an ordeal for back and bum of Wagnerian dimensions

Before watching the series, you may wish to look at the supplement that has interviews with two surviving stars – David Warner (Henry VI) and Janet Suzman (Joan of Arc and Lady Anne).  Both would go on to wonderful careers, but each was hesitant at this stage, and their selection carried risk.  Warner was offered his role after three auditions.  He said he couldn’t believe it, and that he spent the first few days apologising for his selection.  It was a great choice.  His face, which is on the cover, was made to express the pain and indecision of a pious disaster.  Of his part, Kenneth Tynan would say ‘I have seen nothing more Christ-like in modern theatre.’  Either the critic had a queer view of Christ, or he missed that part where this idle fop disinherited his son so that he could hold on to power for a few years more.  (And I am a Tynan fan.)

When offered the role of Joan la Pucelle, Suzman asked who was she?  ‘Joan of Arc, you bloody idiot.’  Then she turned up on the set, and all ‘the big guns were there.’  I’m not personally familiar with how the hierarchy in the theatre manifests itself to relative novices, but I imagine you could get the kind of snakiness you may find among some barristers and test cricketers – that is, naked bitchiness.  Suzman says the editing was a corrective to a ‘biblical’ view of Shakespeare.  Her features then, and fifty years on, radiate a kind of strength – of a kind, perhaps, that the Lady Anne lacked.

One of the big guns that may have put the wind up Janet Suzman was Peggy Ashcroft.  She plays Margaret of Anjou, the queen of Henry VI, and the ‘she-wolf of France.’  She appears in every segment, and is the driving force for a lot of the action as the proud wife of an anaemic king, and the protective mother of his betrayed heir.  She starts as the young French girl who is wooed into a negotiated marriage, becomes the de facto ruler of England, and the serial killer of the enemies of her house, and ends as a savage old hag at risk of being accused of witchcraft (which they all believed in back then.)

Since the actress was fifty-six when she played this part, pulling it off would be a feat – but pull it off, she did.  Here is how a contemporary critic saw what appears to have been the original stage production.

.. the quite marvellous, fearsome performance of Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret of Anjou, who skipped on to the stage, a lightfooted, ginger, sub-deb sub-bitch at about 11.35 a.m. and was last seen, a bedraggled crone with glittering eye, rambling and cussing with undiminished fury, 11 hours later, having grown before our eyes into a vexed and contumacious queen, a battle-axe and a maniac monster of rage and cruelty.. even the stoniest gaze was momentarily lowered from this gorgon.

Peggy Ashcroft said of her part as Margaret that she was:

….a Dark Lady if ever there was one – and prototype for Cressida, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth – was Shakespeare’s first ‘heroine’ – if such she can be called… It takes four plays to make her one of the great female characters in Shakespeare – and the full-length portrait has been seen only in The Wars of the Roses cycle – but she has facets that are not touched on in any other.

Margaret’s feral growls and hideous curses could cost you some sleep.

Janet Suzman is vital and gamin, and utterly followable as Joan of Arc.  The scene where the big hitters elect to pick either a white rose (York) or a red rose (Lancaster) resembles heavy chested Harley riders.  What are they missing that makes them show of so dangerously?  In truth these magnates resemble the Mafia more than the Hell’s Angels.  And the Mafia and the feudal system both evolve out of the same disorder – the failure of central government to provide security drives people to make other arrangements.  They seek protection elsewhere.  You look after me and I will look after you.

These lords and knights have that marvellous medieval accompaniment – their ‘powers’.  Their puissance, another word much used in these times, leads others to pledge allegiance – to their liege lords.  It is I suppose the kind of thing you see in shows like House of Cards, but there is something less prosaic about ‘powers’ than poll ratings or factions or unions or think tanks or talk shows.

We are talking about chess played with extreme prejudice.  The magnates are like the knights and bishops, or even rooks, except that the rules are there to be flouted.  The concept of allegiance was at best fluid.  The followers – the powers – of the Duke of Burgundy or Lord Gloucester were as solid and reliable as the Tory ministers of Mrs Theresa May.

I will not mention all the players.  The cast includes Roy Dotrice, Brewster Mason, Eric Porter, and the others mentioned here.  The rose pickers include Donald Sinden as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and William Squire as Suffolk (the wooer and lover of Margaret).  Sinden’s voice reminds me of Drambuie.  There is something about it that makes it instantly recognizable, rather like the deflated Kevin Spacey.

When I lived in South Yarra, I could walk to and from work in the east end of Collins St, about thirty-five minutes each way, and in about four months listen to all thirty-eight plays.  (It was then that I was glad that I had seen Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida because I would not be doing so again; and Cyril Cusack’s Iago put me off Othello for life.)  I suppose I had heard A Winter’s Tale on four or five occasions, before one day, out of nowhere, on the tan, I recognized the voice of the lead – there was no doubt it was William Squire who played Hunter in nearly all the twenty or so episodes of Callan.  And in this trilogy there is also a lot of that eyebrow rolling and nasally drawled incredulity.  It is bliss for Callan fans.

Gloucester (Paul Hardwick) is the definitive politician and the unfortunate Winchester (Nicholas Selby) is played like Joel Grey in Cabaret.  Both could have walked straight out of Yes, Minister.

The Jack Cade sequence was to my mind hopelessly over the top, and too violent.  Indeed, there are many scenes of horrific violence.  We get to see what a blood feud can really look like, generation after generation.  Janet Suzman remarked on the violence, and the role of cabbages in the decapitations.  She said people were fainting all over the place.

One of my favourite scenes from this playwright is the confrontation between Queen Margaret and the Duke of York.  She taunts him about his progeny.

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

 Dicky your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?

Well, we’ll get to see this Dicky in full murderous flight in the next episode, but this French-born woman steels herself not just to extinguish her womanhood, but her humanity.  She will mock not just knighthood, but fatherhood.  She rubs the nose of York into the blood of Rutland (his son) on a handkerchief.  She says she mocks him to make him mad so that she can sing and dance.  She puts a paper crown on the head of the man who would be king and says:

Ay, marry, sir, now he looks like a king

Ay, this is he who took King Henry’s chair

And this is he was his adopted heir.

But how is it that great Plantagenet

Is crowned so soon, and broke his solemn oath?

Off with the crown, and with the crown his head!

And whilst we breathe, take time to do him dead!  

 

The BBC version is not for children.  Margaret by now is oozing hate, and we start to get that old Greek feeling of whole houses being cursed.  (In the McKellen film, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth gave meaning to the phrase ‘Ay me!  I see the ruin of my house’ – ‘Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre’.  She was right.)  The violence was perhaps not so surprising after the assassination of Kennedy, and the beginning of the war in Vietnam.  And the Cold War was stepping up, so mutilation by a sickle in the area of the groin may have then had different significance.  We have now been exposed to so much more horror, that this level of explicitness looks as unnecessary as it is unkind.

In the final part, we see evil made manifest in Richard III played by Ian Holm.  Richard III is a master class in the kind of stunt pulled by Peisistratus that was made whole by Mussolini and perfected by Hitler.  The part as played by Ian Holm is so threatening because it is underdone.  It’s as if the producers wanted to comment on the ‘banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt saw in Eichmann.  (He was one of those mass murderers who went to work with mass death in his brief case.)  What we are presented with here is not motiveless malignity, but wanton evil.  Most people can get hot for sex; the world must be peopled; but some people, sadly, get hot for evil.

Ian Holm was born to act.  For this role he also brings the advantages of relative youth and shortness of size.  He said:

I played Richard very much as a cog in the historical wheel, and not as an individual character. We tried very hard to get away from the Olivier/Irving image of the great Machiavellian villain.

When Richard is confronted with his bloody past, we get the kind of apologia that Fox News reserves for Donald Trump.

Look, what is done cannot now be amended.

Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes

Which afterhours gives leisure to repent.

 

The scene where Richard confronts Anne is difficult, because it is revolting.  But we have been rudely reminded that quite revolting people – including racist morons – might appeal to people who don’t mind being revolted, or who just don’t care.  And we are also reminded of the difference between the power of sex appeal – that this king had none of – and the sex appeal of power.  When we say that power corrupts, it is not just the wielder who can be corrupted, but those who come within its thrall.  The regimes we least admire work on dragging people down to their level and then locking them into the regime by their complicity.

All that and more is on show here in this remarkable trilogy for the preservation of which we owe much thanks.

PS. May I add a note about Hunter? Callan worked for the British spooks.  He was dragooned into it, and to do dirty hit jobs, because they got to him in the Big House.  He has come up the hard way.  His only mate is a scruffy Cockney cab driver called Lonely.  Hunter is from the Establishment.  So is another agent, Toby Meares.  They are observing from afar Callan on a dangerous mission to meet a deadly Russian killer.  Hunter scowls – he’s good at that – when Meares expresses a moral qualm about the danger to Callan.

Well, then, what would you do if you were in my position, Meares?

Well, on reflection, I think I would do nothing, Sir.

In that case, I would applaud your reticence, Meares.

Oh, don’t applaud, Sir – that way your right hand might know what your left hand is doing.

 

If you watch William Squire in The Wars of the Roses – he is Buckingham at the end – you will see immediately why he was a natural for the part of Hunter – and why he continues to play a substantial part in my entertainment.  As it happens, Buckingham is one of the most vapid and watery liars the world has known.  He is the Platonic form of the kind of politician who drives the rest of us mad.

Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – and Trump

 

When the Three Estates convened at Versailles in 1789, the Nobility and the Clergy played hard to get with the rest of France the Third Estate.  Its delegates then wished to constitute themselves as the body representing the nation of France.  What should it call itself?  Assemblée Nationale or Représentants du people?  But if the latter, who were the ‘people’?  Many feared that the King and the Court and the Clergy would regard the peuple as the plebs rather than the populus, or, as Michelet framed it, le peuple inférieur.  So, they went for the name Assemblée Nationale.

Similar questions arise when you ask who is in the populus that populists appeal to?  If you answer that they are the plebs or the ‘inferior people,’ you may get into trouble, if not a fight.  Even the terms ‘commoner’ or ‘common people’ are tricky in a nation that claims to prize equality.

For the purposes of this note, I will say that the ‘people’ that Donald Trump appeals to are those who welcome his pardoning of a government officer who boasted of running a concentration camp for people who he thought were ethnically inferior, who ran up a bill for the people of Arizona of $70 million in defending his racial profiling, and who was then sentenced to jail for defying a court order.  The ‘people’ that Farage appeals to were those who loved that photo of their leader grinning in front of a large poster with a long line of towel-heads threatening to inundate the Fatherland.  These folks didn’t think the poster was racist, and would turn more nastily against those whom they call ‘elite’ if anyone dares to say so.  With Pauline Hanson, you have a smorgasbord, but for Australia generally, you might say that the ‘people’ that someone like Cory Bernardi might appeal to are those who think that Peter Dutton is a good Minister of the Crown and a man worthy to be Prime Minister of this great nation.

What did our greatest playwright have to say about the ‘people’?  Quite a lot – and it is hard to find anything favourable either to the people or those who appeal to them.

In a book I wrote some years ago, I said:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall:

‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all’.

This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them– they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government?  The nightmare would be made real.

You can make up your own mind whether you think that that nightmare has become real in the U S or elsewhere, but the figure of Jack Cade in Act 4 of Henry VI Part II does look frighteningly prescient.

Cade is a demagogue from Kent.  We see him first as a pawn of a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the mob, but he has ideas of his own.  He thinks he can be king.  (He is no democrat, but dictators rarely are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.  ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ (4.2.75) and ‘make it a felony to drink small beer’ (4.2.66).

The descent into Fantasyland is immediate: ‘Strike off his head’ (4.7.112).  This was the short answer of Robespierre, but at least Robespierre, who was a lawyer, was not terrified of writing.  Jack Cade will kill those who can write: only one who has to apply his mark may be considered an ‘honest plain-dealing man’ (4.2.100).  The Nazis went further and burnt books, but by and large these did not exist at the time of Jack Cade.  How often do we see this victimhood on the part of the mindless, pretending that only they are pure?  It’s as if you have to be a victim to be good.  And Cade can link class vindication to ideological cant:

And you that love the commons, follow me.

Now show yourselves men; ‘tis for liberty.

We will not leave one lord, one gentleman,

Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon.  (4.2.180-184)

‘Clouted shoon’ means hobnailed boots.  This is Romper Stomper six centuries ago.  Our nightmare was alive back then.  The reference to ‘liberty’ is moonshine.  Cade is in this only for himself.  He even wants the droit de seigneur (4.7.120-125). But almost immediately, the fickle mob drops him and he is dispatched – unconvincingly – by another more orthodox son of Kentish soil.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro, as this multitude?’(4.8.56-59).

Cade loathes literacy.  That and his capacity to hide behind a joke if he gets caught is something else Trump has in common with Cade.  In the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm, Cade prefigures the mob in Paris in and after 1789.

Jack Cade then is the template for the loud, stupid, selfish populism of the Trump brand.  We see the mob being seduced in Richard III; Richard II is worried about the appeal of Bolingbroke to the mob; Henry IV lectures his son on how to present to them; and Joan of Arc has a popular appeal that Henry VI could not even dream of; but I shall confine my remarks to the Roman plays.

The gross political naivety of Brutus and the duplicity of Antony enabled the latter to convert and then unleash the mob in possibly the most famous speech for the stage in Julius Caesar, Act I Scene 2Brutus was silly not to have taken out Antony with his patron.  He was sillier to allow a disciple of Caesar to open his mouth in public about the murder.  Then he was even sillier to accept Antony’s promise not to ‘blame us’ (3.1.245).  Within minutes, Antony is speaking of letting slip the dogs of war.  The speech plays on the words ‘honorable’ and ‘ambition’ – lethally.  Then this masterpiece of political deceit plays on the word ‘mutiny’ – three times.  Inciting mutiny was of course Antony’s sole purpose in making the speech, and Brutus and the other killers would pay with their lives for their political innocence.

Many of those who are familiar with this speech forget its aftermath.  In the next scene, the hysterical mob becomes a lynch mob, and then we are shown the big hitters sharing the spoils of revenge.  They calmly decide which of their families will have to die.  Act 4 Scene 1 commences with Antony saying ‘These many men shall die; their names are pricked.’  Octavius responds ‘Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?’  The murderous cold-bloodedness of these power brokers might remind you of a passage in Antony and Cleopatra. When the world beaters are getting drunk doing their big deal to split up the world, the aide to Pompey asks him if he would be lord of the whole world.  He then offers this amazing but sober proposal:

These three world-sharers, these competitors,

Are in thy vessel.  Let me cut the cable;

And when we are put off, fall to their throats.

All there is thine.  (2.7.73-74)

These rulers not only play with the mob – they kill them as if for sport.

The action in Coriolanus takes place during the class wars that sickened ancient Rome for so long.  We still are inclined to label some people ‘patrician’ and some ‘plebeian’ after the Latin terms for the two classes who were at each other’s throats in Rome.  Neither now is a term of affection.

Coriolanus was as patrician as you could get.  He loathed the plebeians – and he could not help himself from revealing his loathing – indeed, reveling in it.  If you regard the ‘people’ with contempt, and if you are happy to show them that contempt, you can hardly expect to achieve political success if the constitution decrees that you must appear before the people and obtain their assent to your appointment to the office you seek.  Since that’s what the Roman constitution provided, the play Coriolanus is inevitably a tragedy.

A dramatic high point comes when our hero erupts astoundingly when a tribune says ‘shall’ – a plebeian being imperative to a noble! (3.1.87).  Coriolanus spits the word ‘shall’ back at them four times.  The man who takes Coriolanus in and then turns on him knows what the word ‘boy’ will do (5.6.101).  The representatives of the ‘people’ are the ‘tribunes.’  They get a shocking press in this play.  They are like union organizers – Jesuitical or communist, depending on your phobia or fancy.  The film reeks of 1789.  ‘What is the city but the people?’ and ‘The people are the city.’  (3.1.198-9).  That is pure Robespierre.  The tribunes are cold blooded, self-interested, manipulative cowards.  Here is how they go about their work in steering the populus.

To the’ Capitol come

We shall be there before the stream o’ th’ people;

And this shall seem, as partly ‘tis, their own,

Which we have goaded onward.  (2.3.267-271)

Coriolanus is a sustained hatchet job of the puppeteers of the populus.  And it is another reason why we regard this playwright so highly for his insight into our politics.  The main lesson from this play for us in seeking to understand Trump is that if a person comes into political office with a character that makes him unfit for that office, you are kidding yourself if you think he might change character on the job.  Indeed, the likelihood is that he will only get worse the longer he stays in the job.  Power rarely improves people it and never makes them humble.

Tony Tanner referred to Plutarch speaking of Coriolanus and saying how an education might lead a man who was ‘rude and rough of nature’ to be ‘civil and courteous.’  He went on:

During the Renaissance, there was much discussion concerning the proper education, duties, and responsibilities of the good prince or governor – what qualified a person to exercise ‘the speciality of rule’.  As Plutarch stresses, it is precisely these qualifications which Coriolanus so signally lacks: he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.

That is Donald Trump word for word.  From Rome to Washington, and from Plutarch to the New York Times, there is nothing new under the political sun.

Here and there – a philosopher on Shakespeare

 

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a German scientist and architect who became an English philosopher.  He was a client, in the Latin sense of that term, of Bertrand Russell.  When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he thought he had solved the problems of philosophy.  Russell was far from convinced and wrote a cautious forward.  Wittgenstein later recanted, as age and experience begat modesty.  His published output was later fragmentary.

One such work is Culture and Value.  It is a collection of aphorisms jotted down over many years about logic, life, religion, music, and literature.  If Russell had trouble following Wittgenstein when he was writing for the learned, we may have trouble when Wittgenstein is thinking aloud about the world at large.

Some of the aphorisms relate to Shakespeare.  What might they say about the playwright or the philosopher?

Shakespeare displays the dance of human passions, one might say.  Hence he has to be objective; otherwise he would not so much display the dance of human passions – as talk about it.  But he displays it to us in dance, not naturalistically.  (I got this idea from Paul Engelman.)

I’m pretty sure that I follow that.  The first proposition contains a metaphor that I find enlightening.  The suggested requirement of ‘objectivity’ is thought provoking, even if I’m not sure that the point is carried.  But he returns to the idea of a dance.  If he had referred to a ‘symphony’ or ‘fugue’ or ‘canvas’ of human passions, would there have been any different meaning?

It is remarkable how hard we find it to believe something that we do not see the truth of for ourselves.  When, for instance, I hear the expression of admiration for Shakespeare in the course of several centuries, I can never rid myself of the suspicion that praising him has been the conventional thing to do; though I have to tell myself that this is how it is.  It takes the authority of a Milton really to convince me.  I take it for granted that he was incorruptible. – But I don’t of course mean that I don’t believe an enormous amount of praise to have been, and still to be, lavished on Shakespeare without understanding and for the wrong reasons by a thousand professors of literature.

I don’t follow that at all.  The first sentence looks silly.  If we do not see the truth of a statement for ourselves, of course we tend not to believe it.  There is nothing remarkable there.  If the author is saying that a lot people just toe the line on this part of high art, we could well agree.  But does the fact that there is bullshit elsewhere disqualify our opinions, or, perhaps I should say, reactions?  The reference to Milton appears to me to be at best adolescent, and at worst plainly rude.  We can return later to the issue of ‘understanding’ Shakespeare.

It may be that the essential thing with Shakespeare is his ease and authority, and that you just have to accept him as he is if you are going to be able to admire him properly, in the same way you accept nature, a piece of scenery for example, just as it is.

If I am right about this, that would mean that the style of his whole work, I mean of all his works taken together, is the essential thing and what provides his justification.

My failure to understand him could then be explained by my inability to read him easily.  That is, as one views a splendid piece of scenery.

These comments make you wonder how often the philosopher had seen plays by this playwright on the stage – or if he had ever gone to the theatre at all.  The author wrote the plays for profit – obtained by people willing to be entertained by seeing these plays performed on the stage.  The repeated references to Shakespeare, and the reference to ‘the style of his whole work’ and ‘all his works taken together,’ suggest, to my mind, that the philosopher is proceeding at a level of abstraction that is almost metaphysical – and for him, that is anathema.

But if the first proposition entails that we should be careful in trying to analyse any part of this artist’s work, I agree with it.

But what does it mean to say that the style of the work provides its justification?  Why did Shakespeare have to justify King Lear – or any other part or the whole of his output?

And what does he mean by understanding Shakespeare?  When we talk of understanding something, we talk of getting its meaning or significance.  If I go to St Peter’s and see the Pieta of Michelangelo, or if I had gone to hear Miles Davis in the Vanguard in the 1950’s, or if I had gone to see Blue Poles chez nous, and someone had asked me if I had understood what I had seen or heard, I would have been at best confused.  ‘Listen, Mate, I have come all this way, and at real expense, to experience a work of art, one of the title deeds of Western civilisation.  Don’t ask me to relegate these masterpieces to the dustbin of the prosaic by trying to give what I think may the meaning of that art.’  To what extent is, say, Hamlet different to other works of art when it comes to understanding art?

There is, I think, a real problem here.  I have hugely enjoyed reading commentaries on Shakespeare by people like A C Bradley and Tony Tanner, and they have greatly added to my enjoyment of experiencing the plays.  (I have also come across truckloads of tripe.)  In some loose sense those authors may have added to my understanding of the plays, but I very much fear that that sense is far too loose for a philosophical inquiry.

If you think that sounds woolly, I would plead guilty – but that is what I feel driven to.  I would refer back to what I said about the need for care in trying to analyse any part of the work of this artist, or any other artist.  Indeed, any one of us might be accused of tiptoeing around the volcano if hubris if we claimed to have found the ‘meaning’ of any play or poem of this playwright and poet.

Shakespeare and dreams.  A dream is all wrong, absurd, composite, and yet at the same time, it is completely right: put together in this strange way, it makes an impression.  Why? I don’t know.  And if Shakespeare is great, as he is said to be, then it must be possible to say of him: it’s all wrong, things aren’t like that – and yet it’s quite right according to a law of its own.

It could be put like this too: if Shakespeare is great, his greatness is displayed only in the whole corpus of his plays, which create their own language and world.  In other words he is completely unrealistic.  (Like a dream.)

All of that goes clean over my head.  Even Freud may have had trouble with it.  It is worryingly symptomatic of a tortured ambivalence about Shakespeare.  It calls to mind a summer school at Oxford about Wittgenstein.  A very charming Indian lady was evidently finding it hard to come to grips with the subject.  She was not alone.  At the end she had a question for the tutor.  ‘You have told us that Wittgenstein set out to cure our language of illness – could you be so good as to give us an instance where the cure worked?’  She also told the class that ‘in India, we don’t even have a word for God.’  I took her to be saying that for her, some things – like God – were out of reach of words.  At least at one point, Wittgenstein would have agreed with her.

I do not believe Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet.  Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?

The short answer is that he was both.  The long answer is that labels are at best dangerous and at worst presumptuous.

I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.

There is a whole lot in the works of Goethe that I don’t ‘get’ (in part, because I am not receiving it as it was written – in German); it seems clear that Wittgenstein had the same problems with Shakespeare.  We are nowhere near analysis or criticism.  (When I use the term ‘get’ here, I am I think invoking a loose form of ‘understanding’ of the order I referred to earlier.)

It is not as though Shakespeare portrayed human types well and were in that respect true to life.  He is not true to life.  But he has such a supple hand and his brush strokes are so individual, that each one of his characters looks significant, is worth looking at.

Art is a lyrical reflection on the human condition.  We know art is good if people keep wanting more of it.  It is hard to think of an artist who has done this anywhere near as well as Shakespeare.  He shows us as we are.  To the extent that you can give meaning to the phrase ‘true to life’ in this context, it is dead wrong.

‘Beethoven’s great heart’ – nobody could speak of ‘Shakespeare’s great heart.’  ‘The supple hand that created new linguistic forms’ would seem to be nearer the mark.

A poet cannot really say of himself ‘I sing as the birds sing’ – but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself.

The last proposition means nothing to me.  The first is of the same intellectual calibre – zero – as a public bar discussion of whether Bradman was better than Trumper or Ronaldo is better than Messi.

May I go back to what I said about the need for care in claiming to analyse art and the danger of hubris?  I’m afraid that the philosopher may be guilty on both counts.  And the statement that ‘nobody could speak of ‘Shakespeare’s great heart’ looks suspiciously like a statement of fact.  Richard Burton knew a good deal more about Shakespeare than Wittgenstein.  Burton saw ‘staggering compassion’.  The context is:

What chance combination of genes went to the making of that towering imagination, that brilliant gift of words, that staggering compassion, that understanding of all human frailty, that total absence of pomposity, that wit, that pun, that joy in words and the later agony.  It seems that he wrote everything worth writing and the rest of his fraternity have merely fugued on his million themes…..

Well, if a man as bright as Wittgenstein sees fit to go into print on an issue that gives him such trouble, you may wonder what modern philosophy has done for us.  Nor will you be alone there.  At a later tutorial at the summer school I mentioned, the Indian lady – to whom I had taken quite a shine – said to the tutor, in the course of the class: ‘Thank you for being so kind as not to notice that I was falling asleep.’

But we should end on a softer, kinder note.  I wrote elsewhere –

After a short visit to the United States in 1949, he [Wittgenstein] learned that he had cancer.  He lived with various friends in Oxford or Cambridge until he died in 1951.  He was, in common with our other heroes, at peace with himself when he left us.  It says a lot for his character that the lodging in which he stayed at the time that he died was looked after by a landlady.  Wittgenstein was in the habit of walking to the pub with her each night.  Wittgenstein would be about the most un-pub sort of person that God ever put on this earth, but he went out with his landlady for the walk and, moreover, he would order two sherries.  He would give one to her and, since he did not drink, he would pour his over the flowers.  That is not the conduct of a man bereft of humanity.  He had a most extraordinary intellect in a constricted character that made it nearly impossible to pass on to us the benefits of that intellect.  His success in doing so is due to his extraordinary moral courage.  Intellect alone is never enough.

Here and there – Two sanctimonious politicians

 

Medieval kings had to rule as well as reign.  They had to be much more like our politicians than our modern kings.  Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, father and son, provide studies in the dark arts and crafts of politics that throw light on the behaviour of our politicians of today.  They also provide a contrast in sanctimony, that is, a pretended or affected decency.  These rulers smack of hypocrisy, and being other than what they seem.  It’s this two-facedness that gets on our quince with our politicians, and the sanctimony here extends over two generations and four plays.

The character of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) in Richard II is opaque.  He never soliloquizes, and we do not get a window into his mind.  Was he a born schemer before the time of Machiavelli, so that the Crown came to him –

But as an honour snatched with a boisterous hand.  (2 Henry IV, 4.5.191)

Or did Bolingbroke just go with the flow so –

That I and greatness were compelled to kiss.  (2 Henry IV, 3.1.74)

The question is open, and we are left with the impression that Bolingbroke is somehow hollow.  And with an author like this, you don’t treat that result as an accident.

But when he attains the crown, King Henry IV gets to upbraid his son for his ways, and we get a clear insight into the politics of this man.  This is a man-to-man chat and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the speaker.  The father tells the son how Richard II lost his crown.  He did so because he debased its currency by taking up with low life.

The skipping King, he ambled up and down

With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,

Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,

Mingled his royalty with capering fools…

Enfeoffed himself to popularity,

That, being daily swallowed by men’s eyes,

They surfeited with honey and began

To loathe the taste of sweetness…..(I Henry IV, 3.2.60-72)

 

How apt do those last four lines seem for Donald Trump?  The first line – ‘Enfeoffed himself to popularity’ – might be translated ‘Hocked his soul to Fox News.’  But this description of Richard II, which is fair, applies equally to the conduct of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne.

What then is the sage advice of this seasoned politician who is the father of the miscreant prince?  Make yourself scarce and then put on a front.

By being seldom seen, I could not stir

But like a comet I was wondered at…..

And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,

And dressed myself in such humility

That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts…..

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,

My presence, like a robe pontifical,

Ne’er seen but wondered at; and so my state,

Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast

And won by rareness such solemnity.  (I Henry IV, 3.2.46-59)

As Bolingbroke, he may not have followed this policy to the letter.  The king he deposed had observed ‘his [Bolingbroke’s] courtship to the common people’ – even to the point of doffing his bonnet to an oyster-wench.  (Richard II, 1.4.24-31)

But we know that young Hal has already worked out a similar trick for himself.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted he may be more wondered at….

So when this loose behaviour I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.  (I Henry IV, 1.2.182 – 205)

 

Hal parades as one of the boys, one of the people, but it’s all a game, and a game for his benefit only.  This spoiled royal brat is just a user. ‘When I am King of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap … I can drink with any tinker in his own language.’ (I Henry IV, 2.4.10-20)  But when the game has served its purpose, these human toys, of whom the prince had spoken with such disgust, may be discarded.  The young prince takes people under him into his trust and confidence, knowing that he will then break that trust – because as king he will have to let Falstaff and the rest of the motley go.  It’s one thing to meet the people; it’s another to sow wild oats before becoming weighed down by care – as we are reminded by some reluctant younger members of the royal family now; but it is altogether a different thing to take up and discard your future subjects when it suits you.

Young Hal is a rat and he knows it.  There is something revoltingly clever about a young man wanting to be seen to be paying a debt he never promised.  You may not want a guy like that standing behind you at a grouse shoot.  When they are play-acting, Falstaff says: ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.’  Hal says, quietly: ‘I do, I will.’  (Part I, 2.4.480-1)  When his father accuses Hal of being ‘common’, Hal says: ‘I shall hereafter … Be more myself.’ (Part I, 3.2.92)  When he casts off Falstaff and the whole Eastcheap crowd – the common people – King Henry V does so with one of the coldest lines of this author, a passage that so upset A C Bradley.  The new king went on to say:

Presume not that I am the thing I was

For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,

That I have turned away my former self

So will I those that kept me company

When thou dost hear that I am as I have been

Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast

The tutor and the feeder of my riots.  (Part II, 5.57-64)

 

So, the new king is saying that he has changed from his former self. But that was not true. As a prince, Hal had only pretended to engage in the gutter – until he allowed his sun to dissipate the clouds.  He had not changed – he had merely dropped the front.

That story might pass in the Court, but it could not do in Eastcheap.  There they said that ‘the King has killed his heart’, the heart of Falstaff (Henry V, 2.1.91) and the King has ‘run bad humors on the knight’ whose heart was broken. (Henry V, 2.1.125-127)

Even if Eastcheap merely thought that the king killed the heart of Falstaff, it knew that he had endorsed the execution of Bardolph.  Bardolph was hanged for blasphemy – stealing plate from a church.  The pious King says that he will not have ‘the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language.’  (Henry V, 3.6.115-116).  And another sometime mate, or pretended mate, goes under, in order that this king can prove his chivalry to his enemy.

There is something both cold and calculating about each these two politicians, father and son.  They are both two faced, but there is something very chilling about the duplicitous cold-bloodedness of the son.  How do you warm to a man who treats his confidants with less heart than he would show to a stray Tom?  Someone compared the prince to a clever shopkeeper who ‘knows how to display the merchandise of his behavior.’  And in the next play, we will see that that this duplicity runs in the family – the brother Prince John will unload an act of bastardry that may have fazed Hitler.

Hotspur, that soul of chivalry, saw in Bolingbroke ‘this subtle king’ and a ‘vile politician’ (Henry IV, 1.3.169 and 239).  The Oxford Edition gives for ‘politician’ a ‘shrewd schemer, deceitful opportunist’ and refers us to King Lear 4.6.172-174 where the mad old king is talking to a man whose eyes have been put out:

…..Get thee glass eyes

And like a scurvy politician seem

To see the things thou dost not.

For ‘scurvy politician’ the Everyman gives ‘vile politic man,’ while the Oxford goes in harder: ‘worthless, contemptible intriguer.’  If all this means that you regard the man who became Henry V as ‘frankly vicious’, then that was precisely the phrase that Sir Anthony Quayle applied to Falstaff – and Quayle was best placed to know the character of Falstaff.  And do I not think that such an equivalence would for one moment have troubled the playwright.

The three plays where Bolingbroke is in the lead are for many the three best plays of this author in the theatre.  The two great scenes for father and son are two of the glories of our stage, and the failings of these two characters are part of the magic of those scenes.  If you see them better done than by Roger Allam and Jamie Parker in the 2012 Globe production, the gods of theatre have truly smiled on you.  There is a lot more than mere politics here.  When you have buried your parents and raised your children, you will find it hard to go through these scenes with a dry eye.

Here and there – Herman Melville on Evil

 

In Melville’s final work, Billy Budd, Billy personifies innocence and beauty.  John Claggart personifies evil.  He cannot stand the sight of Billy.

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab represents another kind of evil.  Ahab is mad to get revenge on the murderous whale that ‘dismasted’ him.  W H Auden said that Ahab ‘is a representation, perhaps the greatest in literature of defiant despair.’  Ahab is wilfully beyond comfort because ‘comfort would be the destruction of him’ (a phrase that Auden takes from Kierkegaard).

Captain Ahab personifies the fanatic, and he appeals to the gutter.  It was only on reading the novel for the third time – in which serious self-editing is permitted – and on looking again at the luminous book Melville, His World and Work (2005) by Andrew Delbanco – that I realised how relevant this curious novel is to us now.  It is a frightening portrait of a manic demagogue.  There is another frightful example in the White House as we speak.

Captain Ahab believes that we are all prisoners of our ignorance about the meaning of our suffering.  He asks his Chief Mate ‘how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?’

To me, the white whale [Moby-Dick] is that wall, shoved near to me.  Sometimes I think there’s nought beyond.  But ‘tis enough.  He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white male agent, or be the white male principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

This is the kind of apocalyptic stuff we get with Carlyle.  Delbanco says that with Captain Ahab, ‘Melville struck a note that would resound through modern history in ways he could never have anticipated’:

All that maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

The usual term is scapegoat.  Delbanco refers to another writer who says that ‘every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering….a ‘guilty’ agent who is susceptible to pain’ upon whom he can vent his rage and ‘dull by means of some violent emotion his secret tormenting pain.’

For this purpose, Ahab gees up his troops, who are at best an indifferent motley.  They happily surrender to the mood of the moment, and to the instinct of the herd.  The zeal of each takes on the colour of the rest.  Delbanco refers to a critic who called Moby-Dick a ‘prophecy of the essence of fascism’, and to a French critic who in 1928 saw the drift into reactionary nationalism and xenophobia and who said that ‘hatred becomes stronger by becoming more precise.’   He refers to another comment about the ‘intense subjectivism’ with which Hitler ‘repeatedly over-rode the opinions of trained diplomats and the German General Staff, committing blunder after blunder’ that led to the final disaster.

The relevance of all this to the manic demagogues we have now, and their pliant acolytes is obvious.  Delbanco concludes:

In Captain Ahab, Melville had invented a suicidal charismatic who denounces as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose – an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete any time soon.

Amen.  But, at least the whale won that one.  And the phrase ‘truth with malice in it’ belongs to the ages.

Here and there – The Third Man and Shakespeare

 

A few weeks ago, on a desultory whim, I watched The Third Man for the nth time.  I realised I had never read the book, so I ordered a copy.  Graham Greene wrote the screenplay too, but there are some differences in the two versions.  The cuckoo clock didn’t get a look-in in the book, but the book’s account of the lecture given to the British reading group in Vienna is different and hilarious – and loaded.

You will recall that Rollo Martins (Joseph Cotton) is a bashed up American writer of cheap westerns.  He is in Vienna to check up on his mate Harry Lime (Orson Welles).  A member of the British Council named Crabbin thinks that Martins is the distinguished novelist named B Dexter.  Crabbin invites Martins to address a meeting of the local British literati.  When Martins is more under the weather than usual, he gets picked up and delivered to the meeting.  He is very sore and terse.  But after a while, he realises that he is making ‘an enormous impression’, least of all when he said that he had never heard of James Joyce.  Graham Greene was having a lot of fun, and settling some old scores.

A kind-faced woman in a hand-knitted jumper said wistfully, ‘Don’t you agree, Mr Dexter, that no one, no one has written about feelings so poetically as Virginia Woolf?  In prose, I mean.’

Crabbin whispered, ‘You might say something about the stream of consciousness.’

‘Stream of what?’

\A note of despair came into Crabbin’s voice……

Martins ends up signing books by Dexter ‘From B Dexter, author of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe.’  He is trying to make his escape via the dunny when Sergeant Paine patiently collects him to have a word with Colonel Calloway (Trevor Howard).

As condescension goes, Mr Crabbin is a direct descendant of Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  For many, the highlight of the night, which was not in the film, had come as follows.

‘Mr Dexter, could you tell us what author has chiefly influenced you?’

Martins, without thinking, said, ‘Grey.’  He meant of course the author of ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’, and he was pleased to find his reply gave general satisfaction – to all save an elderly Austrian who asked ‘Grey.  What Grey?  I do not know the name.’

Martins felt he was safe now and said, ‘Zane Grey – I don’t know any other,’ and was mystified at the low subservient laughter from the English colony.

Crabbin interposed quickly for the sake of the Austrians, ‘That is a little joke of Mr Dexter’s.  He meant the poet Gray – a gentle, mild, subtle genius – one can see the affinity.’

‘And is he called Zane Grey?’

‘That was Mr Dexter’s joke.  Zane Grey wrote what we call Westerns – cheap popular novelettes about bandits and cowboys.’

‘He is not a great writer?’

‘No, no.  Far from it,’ Mr Crabbin said.  ‘In the strict sense I would not call him a writer at all.’  Martins told me that he felt the first stirrings of revolt at that statement.  He had never regarded himself before as a writer, but Crabbin’s self-confidence irritated him – even the way the light flashed back from Crabbin’s spectacles was another cause of vexation.  Crabbin said, ‘He was just a popular entertainer.’

‘Why the hell not?’ Martins said fiercely.

‘Oh, well, I merely meant – ’

‘What was Shakespeare?’

Somebody said with great daring ‘A poet.’

Now, all this is hilarious and beyond price.  It is a Falstaffian swipe at the snobs of the literary establishment who want to turn the popular entertainer called Shakespeare into a god, who helped to propel poor John Keats into the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and who still so meanly and sadly turns up their noses at the wonderful writing of Graham Greene.  Off the top of your head, what writer wrote novels that people enjoy reading more than those of Graham Greene?

It’s as if Greene foresaw his doom.  The establishment wouldn’t give him a Nobel Prize – but they would give one to Bob Dylan.  Well, at least there’s no bloody doubt about his being a popular entertainer.

It’s idle to compare artists, and it is arrogant to purport to rank them, but this extract from The Third Man suggests to me that Greene may have had one thing in common with Shakespeare – just, say, in the wistful remark of the kind-faced woman in the hand-knitted jumper.  You get the impression that it’s just a matter of waiting for some bastard to pull the plug out – and down it all comes.  It’s as if, somehow, God gets in on the act.  Either way, we have been blessed.

Dickens on crowd pullers

 

The rise of demagogues like Farage and Trump has greatly discomforted people like me who are scared of demagogues and the forces that empower them – or, perhaps I should say, the forces that unleash them.  People who succumb to seduction that contains its own contradictions and evidences its own falsity are at best gullible – which means ‘ready to be gulled’ or, if you prefer, conned.

The phenomenon is critically analysed by Charles Dickens in his novel Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty.  The second part of the book is largely taken up by accounts of what are known as the Gordon Riots in London in 1780.

An unbalanced Scottish lord named Lord George Gordon claimed to belong to ‘the party of the people’.  He whipped up mass hysteria in the London mob against Catholics.  The problem was not just antagonism between sects, although that had been explosive enough under both the Tudors and the Stuarts.  Many of the London poor resented Irish immigrants.  Why?  Not because they were Catholic, but because they accepted lower wages and put the locals out of work.  Or so it was felt or alleged.  Some things don’t change.

The mind and character of Gordon and his abettors are looked at in detail by Dickens, as is the terrifying progress of the riots.  They were as bad as any experienced in Paris in and after 1789, with the exception of the September Massacres. The violence was not limited to action against Catholics. These riots conditioned the English against popular intervention, and they stalled the movement for reform for about two generations.  

The hero of the novel is an idiot.  He is therefore inherently gullible.  Although there is not an ounce of evil in Barnaby, he is gulled into taking part in the carnage at London. Barnaby gets apprehended and he is convicted.  There is only one penalty.  Is it right that an idiot should hang for taking part in a riot?

It is hard to dissect what moves people to follow demagogues like Gordon or Farage or Trump.  It is hard enough to see what might go through the mind of you or me – to attempt to guess what may have gone through tens of millions of minds is absurd.  It doesn’t help much to talk about elites or insiders or the better educated or the well off.  But here is a description of the Tory squire in Georgian England given by Dickens in full flight.

Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends.  By some he was called ‘country gentlemen of the true school’, by some ‘a fine old country gentlemen’, by some ‘a sporting gentleman’, by some ‘a thorough–bred gentleman,’ by some ‘a genuine John Bull’; but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day.  He was in the commission of the peace, and could write his name almost legibly; but his greatest qualifications were, that he was more severe with poachers, was a better shot, a harder rider, had better horses, kept better dogs, and could eat more solid food, drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up every morning more sober, than any man in the county.  In knowledge of horse flesh, he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him.  He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands.  He was warmly attached to church and state, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and a first-rate fox-hunter.  He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called ‘the good old English reason’, that her father’s property joined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself.  In short, Barnaby being an idiot, and Grip [a pet raven] a creature of mere brute instinct, it would be very hard to say what this gentleman was.

An agent of Lord Gordon, Gashford, puts a charm on Barnaby to get him to join the movement.  His widowed mother is horrified.  When she tries to restrain Barnaby, we get this:

‘Leave the young man to his choice; he’s old enough to make it, and snap your apron-strings.  He knows, without your telling, whether he wears the sign of a loyal Englishman or not’.

There’s that rotten notion of patriotism again. (Since Trump refused both military service and the payment of tax, it would be impossible, even by his mad standards, for him to claim that he was a patriot.)

Then comes a passage that brings us straight to the USA in December 2016 with Trump’s denial of the intervention in the election of his friend and admirer Vladimir Putin.  (It would be idle for Trump to deny, again even by his own mad standards, the lethal intervention of the FBI.)

‘My good woman’, said Gashford, ‘how can you!  –Dear me!  – What do you mean by tempting, and by danger?  Do you think his lordship is a roaring lion, going about and seeking whom he may devour?  God bless me!’

‘No, no, my Lord, forgive me,’ implored the widow, lying both her hands upon his breast, and scarcely knowing what she said, or did, in the earnestness of her supplication, ‘but there are reasons why you should hear my earnest, mother’s prayer, and leave my son with me.  Oh do.  He is not in his right senses, he is not, indeed.’

‘It is a bad sign of the wickedness of these times’ said Lord George, evading her touch and colouring deeply, ‘that those who cling to the truth and support the right cause, are set down as mad.  Have you the heart to say this of your own son, unnatural mother!’

‘I am astonished at you!’  said Gashford, with a kind of meek severity.  ‘This is a very sad picture of female depravity.’

‘He has surely no appearance,’ said Lord George, glancing at Barnaby, and whispering in his secretary’s ear, ‘of being deranged?  And even if he had, we must not construe any trifling peculiarity into madness.  Which of us’ – and here he turned red again – ‘would be safe if that were made the law!

Dickens leaves us in no doubt about his view of the mob in action, ‘composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London’, just as Carlyle leaves us in no doubt about the September Massacres in Paris.  Dickens says:

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city.  Where it comes from, or whither it goes, few men can tell.  Assembling and dispersing with equal suddenness, it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself; nor does the parallel stop here, for the ocean is not more fickle and uncertain, more terrible when roused, more unreasonable, or more cruel.

And members of the mob tend to lock themselves in.  ‘Indeed, the sense of having gone too far to be forgiven, held the timid together no less than the bold.’  And the ultimate analogy is again made:

The more the fire crackled and raged, the wilder and more cruel the men grew; as though moving in that element, they became fiends, and change their earthly nature for the qualities that give delight in hell.

It is not hard to see the affinity between Dickens and Carlyle, but then comes the banality of the retribution.

Two cripples – both mere boys – one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square.  As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied.  Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town.  For wretched women, too, were put to death.  In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them.  It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

The irony was that those who witnessed the executions were as unattractive as those who had taken part in the riots.  Dickens had been against capital punishment, and he was certainly against public executions.  In 1860, he described the spectators coming from the execution of a murderer as ‘such a tide of ruffians as never could have flowed from any point but the Gallows.  Without any figure of speech, it turned one white and sick to behold them.’  After another hanging, Dickens regarded the conduct of the people as so ‘indescribably frightful, that I felt for some time afterwards almost as if I were living in a city of devils.’  That was the analogy that he made in Barnaby Rudge.

In his enlightening book Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg says:

Lord George, the mad visionary, and Gashford, the cunning mercenary, provide the spark which ignites the incendiary mob.  Barnaby, the imbecile, is an implicit comment on Gordon, the political fool, and Dickens originally planned to have the riot led by three escaped lunatics from Bedlam.  Thus the Gordon riots are seen as an ‘explosion of madness and nothing more’…

There was of course a good deal more involved in the events we know as the French Revolution and the analogy with the US today has ended by now on other grounds.  Trump may well be a political fool, but Farage is not.  And in a representative democracy, the mob finds expression in the ballot box rather than behind the barricades – although the French from time to time like to take to the streets for old times’ sake.

Whether you now see other analogies in the novel will depend on how you read it, and how you see the world now.  If Dickens had sought to characterise people like Malcolm Roberts or Rod Culleton in this novel, I dare say some of us may have thought that he had taken his penchant for caricature and coincidence right over the top.

Someone – I forget who – said that we go to great writers for the truth, and for my part, I think we get a fair bit of it in Barnaby Rudge.

And what of Lord Gordon?  He beat the rap for the riots in a trial presided over by the great Lord Mansfield. Mansfield’s house was burned down in the riots.   The mob was incensed against him because they thought he had given too fair a trial to a priest charged with celebrating mass.  He had directed the jury that they ‘must not infer that he is a priest because he said mass, and that he said mass because he was a priest.’   Lord George would also get a fair trial.

They conducted trials more expeditiously then, and no judge has ever been more expeditious than Mansfield.  The charge was high treason, the most serious in the book.  The penalty was death.  More than thirty witnesses were called.  Erskine made what was called ‘a very long speech’ for the defence.  The court convened at eight on Monday morning.  The jury retired at quarter to five on Tuesday morning.  They gave their verdict half an hour later.  As I said, they were more expeditious then.  At the end of the first week, we would still be listening to the opening.

Before Gordon died, the man who had instigated what we would call a pogrom against Catholics converted to Judaism.  It might make you feel for the members of the synagogue who had to live with that conversion.  But he was later convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette, and he died of typhoid fever in Newgate prison.

Lord George had befriended a con man named Cagliostro (who did a nice line in ‘an elixir of immortal youth’). This crook got tied up in the infamous Diamond Necklace Affair in France and he made an enemy of Marie Antoinette.  Lord Gordon had been appalled by the inequality he saw in France and he charged the French queen with persecuting his mate.  He was then charged with libelling her and British judges.  Erskine was not available, and Lord George conducted his own defence.  He did so with what one commentator called ‘a display of disarming ineptitude.’  When the Attorney spoke of a ‘wise and illustrious princess’, Lord George said in a stage-whisper fashion: ‘Everybody knows she is a very convenient lady.’  That might fairly be described as a high risk gambit.

His lordship was nothing if not different.  Horace Walpole said of the family: ‘They were, and are, all mad.’  A fellow MP said: ‘The noble lord has got a twist in his head, a certain whirligig which runs away with him if anything relative to religion is mentioned.’  Well, his lordship was not alone there, and it could be very dangerous to say that such a whirligig might be evidence of insanity.

Except for the disease that killed him, Lord George lived in comfort at Newgate.  He regularly gave dinners, and he gave balls once a fortnight.  After about 1791, the balls always ended with the Marseillaise.  Lord George had been circumcised and he allowed his hair to grow.  He was well liked at Newgate, even loved, but Lord George Gordon may be the only orthodox Jew in all history to have annoyed other cellmates in his slammer by the playing of the bagpipes.

Lord George passed away on 1 November 1793 after giving a final, faltering rendition of the revolutionary refrain so often described by Carlyle, ça ira.  The romance of the Scots for the French was very strong back then – and it may come back as the English turn their backs on the Continent.

Pure Evil

 

We have to accept that people can do things that look to us to be pure evil.  Take the Terror in France in 1793, the Terror in Germany from 1933 to 1945, or the Terror now being inflicted by IS in the Middle East and elsewhere.  It is the kind of pure evil drawn by Shakespeare in Othello in Iago and by Herman Melville in John Claggart in Billy Budd.

Most of us cannot comprehend how previously decent people could bring themselves to do such evil, but we know that it is wrong to dismiss the examples as problems that were inherently French, German, or Islamic.  That would be to slip into the kind of labelling that underlies those evil ideologies and take us back to where we started.

Pure evil is all about in the book News of a kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is a factual account of a series of abductions of prominent figures in Colombia in an attempt by a drug lord, Pablo Escobar, to do a deal with the government to prevent their being extradited to the U S – which was handing out sentences of life plus more.  Eighteen prominent people were abducted and held in appalling deprivation while negotiations went on.  We know from the blurb and the author’s introduction that two hostages will die – both women.  That disclosure leads to some urgency in the read.

The criminals who so cruelly hold these hostages have been leached of all humanity.  They appear to attach no value at all to human life.  It is as if the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount had never been uttered.  They are at least as mindlessly cold as Himmler and Heydrich.  They commonly stand over the hostages with a cocked machine gun saying that at the first hint of rescue the hostages will be shot.  It is apparent that the guards do not put much value on their own life – they know it is short.

Hannah Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil.  She explained the sub-title as follows:

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.

These observations caused lot of concern, but they derive from a firm intellectual integrity.  Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose some kind of grid or cattle pen over humanity and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.

We might here note the matter-of- fact assessment of the American historian R R Palmer on Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat load in the Vendée during the Revolution, and after being at first applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.

Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.

As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’

Fouché despatched groups of prisoners at Lyons with cannonades of grapeshot fired at close range against people who had been asked to dig their own graves.  The merely wounded were finished off with sabres.  The killers could loot the bodies.  When the tide turned, Fouché lay low for a while, but then he was a key player in bringing down Robespierre, and Napoleon would make him chief of police.  Fouché was a serial survivor, a former seminarian who had no conscience at all.

We see a lot of banality in News of Kidnapping.  One hostage is taken with horrifying violence and many attempts to cover the tracks of the criminals – he then becomes aware that his captors are in a hurry because they want to go downstairs to watch the big local footy derby on TV.  This they do leaving him with a bottle of grog to listen to the game on the radio (which he then does).

While holding cocked weapons on their hostages, the guards have parties on saints’ days and birthdays and they are full of devotion for the Marian cult and ritual and superstition that pervades Latin America.  But when it comes time for a hostage to be executed, a sixty year old former beauty queen, someone fires six shots into her head at close range.  There are twelve entry and exit wounds.  Someone steals her shoes before the police arrive.  What kind of human being borne of a woman could do that to another human being?  How deranged and conscienceless can our human psyche get?  Was the killer jealous of her looks and finery?

Elsewhere, I said the following about Claggart (and Captain Vere and Billy Budd):

Since Claggart is the strongest character in the triangle, he has attracted the strongest writing in the book, the opera and the film.  He is in the tradition of Iago:

… if Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly.

That could be word for word Claggart on Billy.  Shakespeare defined a similar envy in one of the assassins of Caesar.

… Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look

He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men.

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit.

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

While they behold a greater than themselves,

And therefore are they very dangerous.

Again, Claggart, chapter and verse.  If you hand those lines around in a large office and ask people whom they are reminded of, they will invariably indicate the resident smiling assassin.

In a narrative manner, but with a matter-of-fact investigative tone, Melville devotes lines of a very high order to Claggart.  The following words might have been applied to Heinrich Himmler:

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

We are left with the mystery of Hannah Arendt or what Carlyle referred to near the end of The French Revolution as ‘the madness that lies in the hearts of men.’  There may not be all that much between us and the primeval slime.

New books

Having achieved the biblical age, at which all judges must be younger than me, I have decided to release a book a day over the last three days – partly to keep the house in order, and partly in case God takes a different view about departure times.  The three books just released are, like the recent one on Summers in Oxford and Cambridge, collections of notes and essays previously released.  I would hope that they might all suit the general reader.  The collection on legal history might be reserved for lawyers, but it should be mandatory for all of them.

There is plenty of choice for Christmas shopping.

There is a mighty footy match tonight – may peace be upon the Wallabies.  They have nearly restored my faith in sport.

***

Summers in Oxford and Cambridge and Elsewhere

A traveller’s reflections on history and philosophy – and place

Geoffrey Gibson

2015

CONTENTS

PRAGUISH 2005

Reflections on Prague, Oxford, and the Cavalry and Guards Club

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION (OXFORD) 2007

The philosophy of religion at Oxford

OF BERLIN, OXFORD AND ELSEWHERE 2007

Berlin, Dresden, Paris, Oxford (Great Opera Singers), London, Cavalry and Guards and RAF Clubs

A WEEK AT OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE 2009

Oxford (Hume and Kant) and Cambridge (Post-Modernism – playing tennis with the net down)

BERLIN NOW – A MOLESKIN DIARY 2010

Berlin and the World Cup

OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE 2010

Wittgenstein at Oxford and Bach at Cambridge

CROMWELL (CAMBRIDGE) 2011

Course taught by Dr David Smith

SOJOURN IN SCOTLAND 2011

Touring the Highlands

CAMBRIDGE AND OXFORD 2013

Not keeping the peace at Cambridge and Chaucer at Oxford

FOREWORD

This book is a collection of memoires or essays that were written in the course of travels to Oxford or Cambridge or both to attend summer schools.  There is a note on the philosophy of religion and a note on Cromwell, but otherwise the notes consist of anecdotes and reflections more on the places visited and the people I met there than on the subjects that were taught.

I am fortunate to have been able to make these excursions, and I hope that others may be encouraged to do the same.

Geoffrey Gibson

Melbourne

September 2015

41,000 words

SOME LITERARY PAPERS

Tilting at windmills

Geoffrey Gibson

2015

CONTENTS

Foreword

1

Adolph and Richard

Meditating upon evil – Richard III (Shakespeare) and Adolf Hitler

2

Anna and Penny

A note on Anna Karenin and Penelope Cruz – mainly the former

3

Big Four of Shakespeare

My problems

A personal miscellany on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth

4

Chaucer and hierarchy

The medieval hierarchy of Chaucer

5

Courtliness and Courtesy

The role of courtliness and courtesy in Shakespeare

6

Covert acts in Hamlet

Mystery within mystery in Hamlet

7

Crime and Punishment

A note on the Dostoevsky novel

8

Crime Fiction

A note on the novels of Donna Leon

9

Dead Proud Heroes

The argument, as Milton used to call it, is that the heroes of our two great epics, The Iliad and Paradise Lost, fell through pride.  We have grown out of heroes who seek honour through valour and we have grown out of the myth that a woman was the author of our original sin.  We look to our epics for heroes for our times.  The hero of The Iliad is Priam.  He declares that he is human by breaking free of the cycle of revenge.  The hero of Paradise Lost is Satan.  He has the courage to defy authority and to break the ties that stopped our becoming human.  Our epics still show us what we are.

10

Doctor Zhivago

The great novel of Boris Pasternak

11

Falstaff, Tchaikovsky, and Gatsby

Serendipity, theatre, concert hall and the Storm

12

Four pilgrims in Chaucer

Four pilgrims in the Prologue for Oxford Summer School

13

Henry IV at the Globe

A great play in a great theatre

14

Imagination, snobbery, and enlightenment

The place of snobbery and meaning in literature

15

Kangaroo

A note on the novel by D H Lawrence

16

Pasternak on Shakespeare

Thoughts of Pasternak on Shakespeare from two works

17

Poets in prose; and the First Fleet

Tony and Betty! Rope and Pulley!

Whimsy

18

Provincial Cooking

The art of prose of Elizabeth David

19

Rich and Will

Richard Burton on William Shakespeare

20

Riders in the Chariot

A great novel pf Patrick White

21

The novel as opera: dramatic truth

Thoughts on literary and historical meaning

22

Two big novels

Middlemarch and Les Miserables

23

Two novelists on Shakespeare

Tolstoy and Flaubert

24 Shakespeare’s Fan

John Keats idolised Shakespeare

25

Sons and Lovers – A Little Touch of Hamlet in the Night

D H Lawrence and Hamlet

26

Throwaways

The lines in Shakespeare that come from nowhere out of nothing

27

Who is that can tell me who I am?

The bottomless depth of King Lear

Foreword

These essays and notes come from the last five years or so.  They come from a lawyer and they do not claim to be works of scholarship.  I have written elsewhere about Shakespeare, great writing in history, and our great novels.  About half of the present pieces relate to Shakespeare, some in an anecdotal manner, although the grip of the Big Four goes on.  Most of these have been published by the Melbourne Shakespeare Society.  The other pieces relate to other kinds of writing, from cooking to crime, but with a few on novels.  The two substantive essays deal with great peaks in our literature – the role of Achilles and Satan in our two greatest epics, and our two greatest characters, Falstaff and Don Quixote.  If you said that the whole book was Quixotic, I would he happy.

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

Reformation Day (Martin Luther Day)

2015

The 70th birthday of the author.

80,000 words

LOOKING DOWN THE WELL

Papers on legal history

Geoffrey Gibson

2015

CONTENTS

Foreword

1

1689 and 1789

Aide Memoire on Terminology

Different phases of constitutional change in England, France, and Russia

2

God Save Our Anglican Queen

Our Constitution is religiously biased in a way that is beyond us

3

Blackstone’s Magna Carta

A view of Magna Carta from the author of the American legal bible

4

The Role of Contract in the English Constitution

Why are English historians so coy about contract in their constitution?

5

The Dragon in the Cave

How America lost the War of Independence

As America continues to deal with the lesion of slavery and the separateness of black and white, its continuing fascination with God and guns means that it has not lived up to its revolutionary promise. The Americans do not understand the history of the English Constitution.  The decision of the Supreme Court in Heller is a throwback that puts into relief the failure of the nation to grow up.

6

English Serfs

What did serfdom mean in England?

7

Free Speech: Am I Free to Insult or Offend You?

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely.

A look at some of the nonsense about ‘freedom of speech.’

8

Hampden: A Note

A first look at Ship Money

9

How Moses v Macferlan Enriched Our Law –

 Lord Mansfield’s Heresy

The origin of our law of Unjust Enrichment

10

Jury and Parliament

From adviser to the Crown to the protector of the people.  We have not done enough to recognise how the jury and the parliament are there to protect us.

11

Penalties

How Do Public Servants Punish Us?

12

Positions of Trust: A Duty of Integrity

That we should know and respect our history does not entail that we should stay locked in jails built for other purposes.  The word ‘fiduciary’ causes people to go round in circles.

13

Sir Paul

The juristic work of Vinogradoff

14

The Ship Money Case

The case that stopped a nation: the biggest case ever?

15

The Trial of the Seven Bishops

Another case that stopped the nation – litigation as sport.

16

The Tyrannicide Brief

A review of The Tyrannicide Brief, Geoffrey Robertson, Vintage, 2006, PB $35.00 (429 pages).  (Written in 2006)

17

Three slippery words – liberty, freedom and prerogative

The ancients too were seduced by labels

18

800 Years On

Outlawry was a form of process, or unprocess, developed by Anglo-Saxons in the Dark Age when the notion of a judiciary was not known and when the only choice above this world was between God and Satan.  In the year of Our Lord 2015, the closest Australian advisers of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – still the Supreme Governor of the Church of England but not the Empress of India – are conducting an audible debate about reintroducing a form of outlawry by depriving people of their rights as citizens of the Commonwealth without any judgment of their peers.  If they persuade the parliament and Her Majesty to make a law to that effect, they will risk going back more than 800 years and breaking a promise made by the English Crown that it would not go or send against any free man except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

It took the English about seven centuries to build the rule of law and the Westminster system, with a little help from the Americans at the end.  It will take only a fraction of that time to lose both.  We have already given up two essential parts: that the executive should be run by an apolitical civil service with secure tenure, and that ministers should be responsible to the parliament for the failings of that civil service.  There has been an obvious and sustained decline in the quality of people attracted to the parliament or the executive.  That decline has not yet substantially damaged the judiciary, but there is little ground to hope that the decline will be reversed, or that the judiciary will remain untainted.

In a real sense, a lot of our legal process goes back to Magna Carta, given, it is thought, on 15 June 2015.  English philosophers have ignored it.  English legal historians and too many judges have just got it wrong, including some who should have known better.  Curiously, it is better known and better understood in places like the U S and Australia that are used to working under a written compact that separates powers and that has the force of binding and supreme law.

Magna Carta is one of the title deeds of Western civilisation, and the most significant tablet of the law in our history.  It is worth celebrating its 800th birthday.

Appendix

Some tips for young advocates

Foreword

A great English judge, Lord Devlin, said that the ‘English jury is not what it is because some lawgiver so decreed, but because that is the way it has grown up’.  That is so true of almost every part of our law.  Our law is its history.

This is why anyone claiming to be a real lawyer, and not just a bean-counter or meter-watcher, needs to get hand to hand with our legal history.  It is a rollicking story going for more than a thousand years of a people with a genius for law-making while pretending that they were doing no such thing.  It is the story of how the world got its only workable way of protecting people against bullies and each other – whether in the form of government or at large.

That which took a millennium to construct could be washed down the drain in a generation.  We have already trashed two vital parts of our governance – responsible government, and an independent civil service – and we have been scandalously weak in standing up for juries.  These failings come in large part because we have chosen to forget and then betray our heritage.  Sadly, I see no prospect of that decline being reversed.

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

Australia

31 October 2015

70 years to the day from his birth.

95,000 words

SOME HISTORY PAPERS

Essays on Modern History in England and Europe

Geoffrey Gibson

Melbourne, Australia, 2

 

CONTENTS

Foreword

1 A Remarkable Politician- Joseph Fouché

The life of Fouché, terrorist in the Revolution, who survived Robespierre and then Napoleon – a cold blooded killer who became the ultimate survivor.

2 A Secular State

A look at the impact of the Reformation on the rule of law and the secular state in England and France compared to Spain under Franco.

3 A C Grayling

The Philosophy of a Man and the Atom Bomb

A detailed study of the arguments about bombing cities and civilians.

4 Cromwell

A short analysis of Cromwell as dictator following a Summer School at Cambridge taught by Dr David Smith.

5 Foretelling Armageddon

The Two Books that Predicted the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

(With note on the Rise and Fall as they happened)

An essay on how Keynes and Hitler wrote books that predicted in detail the Second World War plus a summary of events as they unfolded.

6 La patrie violente

A detailed view of the century of unrest and violence that followed the outset of the French Revolution and reflections on the notion of historical truth.

7.Money and Politics

American gridlock and the refusal of supply – a failure in governance.

8 Napoleon and Hitler

Meditating upon Evil

A detailed comparison of the lives of Napoleon and Hitler and of the deaths they caused.

9 Oxford Essays on the Stuarts

The Anti-Catholic Tradition in late Stuart Society

Two essays about the Stuarts and the Constitution for an Oxford Summer School.

10 Some historians

An essay about great British and European historians, and Pieter Geyl.

11 The Have-nots are Going Down

A brief note on the rising problem of inequality.

12 The Last Two Samurai

An essay on how Lloyd George and Winston Churchill led a social revolution and brought in the Welfare State.

13 Faust and Perfidy in Albion

The Treaty of Dover 1670

How a King Sold his Soul – Or Did He?

An essay about a king selling out a country for God and gold.

14 Why the French Revolution was not English

An essay on the differences in revolutions in France and England.

15 Witchhunts, Holy Wars, and Failures of the Mind

An essay on witchhunts and holy wars from Salem to McCarthy; consideration of relations between Church and State.

Foreword

These papers were written between 2008 and 2015.  They relate to what we call the modern history of Europe and Britain.  Some were written in or as a result of Summer Schools at Cambridge and Oxford.  For example, the two pieces headed Foretelling Armageddon were first written as course notes at Clare College Cambridge, and now can be found in the fifth volume of A History of the West.

Five of the essays deal with the two big questions that have followed me for fifty years – how did France and Germany, two of the most civilised nations on earth, succumb to their total moral collapses, and with such frightful consequences for the rest of the world?  If you are being raped or killed by a soldier, do you care about the motives of those who sent him.

Three of the pieces deal with issues in Stuart England, and all come from Summer Schools.  My notes on Cromwell come from a remarkable weekender at Cambridge taught by Dr David Smith; those on the Stuart parliaments come from a week at Oxford taught by Dr Andrew Lacey.  The story of the Treaty of Dover should be told in a play or film.

There is a long look at the very flawed views on the bomb of A C Grayling, who might just be too busy to be able to indulge in scholarship, and a piece on the great story of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill on the People’s Budget – at a time when politics had real leaders.  The piece on witchhunts is the oldest, but the bullying of the majority is still just as threatening.

These are contributions by a lawyer and a legal historian whose professional training teaches him to proceed by example, and to look at what goes on elsewhere.  I hope that you enjoy them.

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

Melbourne Cup Day, 2015.

128,000 words.