A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Hello Again, Bard's Eye View can now announce the preparation of a new ebook series, to begin with a Bard's Eye View Hamlet Tour book, for which an e-cover page is currently being designed. We will be comparing a major public figure to Richard II shortly, and until then, please enjoy our over 150 posts on Shakespeare!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kids are growing

The birth of my two sons has delayed my return to Bardseye, but their powers are waxing even as mine wane, and I should be returning to regular posting here, at the hobby of a lifetime, soon.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Obama and Richard II

Mirror Mirror on the Wall (to be continued).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And Liberty Plucks Justice by the Nose


(Bardseyeview is blogging Measure 4 Measure, a Shakespeare play with striking parallels to our own times).

The plot thickens as we take the measure of the third scene of measure for measure, as we encounter the Duke himself in conference with a friar:

Duke: "No. Holy father, throw away that thought;
Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
Can pierce a complete bosom. Why I desire thee
To give me secret harbour hath a purpose
More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends
Of burning youth."

A very cool speech, and very modern in starting with a reference to a preceding off-stage comment of the friar's occurring just before the curtain, which Globe Theater didn't have anayway, rose. The Duke is implying that the friar has just asked him if the reason behind the Duke's request for a secret harbour in the monastery was for a romantic tryst. Not at all. The Dukester's complete bosom cannot be pierced by the dribbling dart of love. If you're smirking at Shakespeare's use of dribble, note that he only means that Cupid's dart would descend weakly and without effect if aimed at him. The Duke then gets to the point:

Duke: "…I have ever lov'd the life remov'd.
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies,
Where youth, and cost, and witless bravery keeps.
I have deliver'd to Lord Angelo –
A man of stricture and firm abstinence –
My absolute power and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me travell'd to Poland;
For so I have strew'd it in the common ear…."

The Duke's Poland trip was a ruse, though his reluctance to rule is real enough. His willingness to withdraw from public life mirrors that of Duke Senior in As You Like It, who exiled to the woods proclaims:

Duke S: " And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in teh running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it."

Or King Ferdinand of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost:

King F: "Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives
Live register'd upon our brazen tombs,"

Oh yes, and Hamlet:

Ham: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

M4M's Duke, however, has withdrawn from courtly life for a specific reason; he seeks to correct the moral laxity that has befallen his realm:

Duke: "We have strict statutes and most biting laws,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o'er grown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not for use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock'd than fear'd;"

If the Children's Services Division ever gets wind of this speech, Shakespeare would be tied up in child custody hearings until the Rapture, as my Baptist neighbors here in North Carolina put it. Spare not the rod, and spoil not the populace, is what the Duke seems to be saying, or more exactly don't threaten the rod if you're not going to use it.

The modern parallels are obvious and arise whenever a totalitarian state loses its jackbooted nerve and fails to sufficiently terrorize its subjects. The Soviet Union's crackdowns on restive Hungarians in 1956 and restive Czechs of the Prague Spring of 1968 helped hold all the Soviet satellites in check, while its namby-pamby reaction to Poland in the 1980s led to its downfall. China took heed in responding to Tiananmen Square in 1989. And of course an endless list of insufficiently oppressive dictators, from Ceausescu to Marcos to Sukarno, would agree with the Bard on this point.

Duke: "…So our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose.
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum."

In the New York City of the 1990s, Policy Chief Braxton clearly played Angelo to Mayor Giuliani's Duke, as the dynamic duo secured a famous turnaround in public safety through Braxton's "broken windows" policy of enforcing small laws in order to forestall the violation of larger ones. Braxton revived decrees that had been for far longer than fourteen years dead to infliction, allowing the criminal worms within the Big Apple liberty to pluck justice by the nose. The new policy's success bred a bruised mayoral ego over who should get credit for the improvement. (In fact James Q. Wilson deserved credit for the concept, if not its execution in New York).

More later…

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Horse Whereon the Governor Doth Ride


Shakespeare is now ready to have Claudio comment on the injustice of whorehouses being merely closed or shifted to new locations while he, a willing husband but for a legal technicality, is to be hanged:

Cla: "And the new deputy now for the Duke –
Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,
Or whether that the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets its straight feel the spur;

The obvious biblical parallel occurred 300 years ago when Rehoboam, after succeeding Solomon, responded to the people's request to lighten the heavy Solomonic tax burden by arrogantly raising the burden. Thus were the Hebrew people made a horse whereon their governor doth ride – who, newly in the seat, that they may know he can command, let them straight feel the spur.

The most striking parallel to Angelo's accession in our era would be the Ayatollah Khomeini's accession in Iran. Of course, the Iranian people after their unwanted march toward modernity offered them under the Shah (a march oddly accompanied by the ungentle prodding of his SAVAK secret service) seemed if anything to be seeking the spur of Sharia law, an utter surrender to theocracy. Today, after thirty years of such rule, we continue to hear murmurings of discontent, but for some odd reason our own government, whether ruled by people with little d's after their names or little r's, strangely refuses to encourage this.

You would think that if our own greatest hope for avoiding an eternity of nuclear blackmail at the hands of madmen was a revolt of the horse whereon the madmen doth ride, that is the Iranian people, that we would be encouraging the revolt. Is it that our own governors seek, even if ever so unconsciously, to be that much more needed, and more looked to for leadership, and more depended on by our own body public, and are for that reason, possibly in a manner unacknowledged even to themselves, negligently permitting the emergence of such a fearful world? War is the health of the state, and our state, by which I mean government, emits the rude health of steroids. Claudio goes on:

Cla: "Whether the tyranny be in his place,
Or in his eminence that fills it up,
I stagger in – but this new governor
Awakes me all the enrolled penalties
Which have, like unscoured armour, hung by th' wall
So long, that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,
And none of them been worn; and for a name
Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
Freshly on me; 'tis surely for a name."

In 2002, then New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer subpoenaed 24 crisis pregnancy centers that counseled women to maintain their pregnancies, alleging that by doing so the centers were practicing medicine without a license. Thus did this future governor awaken enrolled penalties which like unscoured armour had hung by th' wall. Later, as governor, he supported a law that would have allowed non-doctors, including dentists, social workers and "health care practitioners" to perform abortions, an ironic consummation of forty years in the evolution of abortion laws, which were supposed to put a stop to back-room abortions, not legalize them.

But irony was to be Spitzer's watchword; he would later famously resign as governor in order to avoid prosecution under the Mann Act for his serial leasing of high-end prostitutes. Of course, the threatened use of the Mann Act against the governor could itself be considered an awakening of enrolled penalties that hung by the wall like unscoured armour, except that the governor, back when he was attorney general, and seeking to be governor ("and for a name"), had himself used obscure laws for unintended and oppressive purposes. Spitzer used the 1921 Martin Act, intended to prosecute "bucket shops" that defrauded small investors in the 1920s, to prosecute Wall Street firms for their research practices. The law allowed Spitzer to seek criminal penalties without proving criminal intent.

Well, I've run far afield, but Shakespeare saw Spitzer as clearly from 400 years in the past as we are now able to see him, at last, in our rear-view mirrors. And beside Spitzer stand an army of opportunistic prosecutors, from Senator Joe McCarthy and his Iago-like Lieutenant Bobby Kennedy, using a loyalty pledge to go after communists in Hollywood, (without first asking just how much damage a communist can do in Hollywood, except perhaps to Hollywood), to Lael Rubin, the prosecutor of the trumped-up McMartin Preschool abuse cases in Manhattan Beach in the late 1990s, to John Hathorne, judge but in practice the prosecutor of the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. And of course further candidates for modern Angelos are the still too-hot-to handle Whitewater-related claims brought by Ken Starr against a dem white house and the Plame game pursued by Patrick Fitzgerald against a rep one.

Meanwhile, our original Claudio begs Lucio to tell his, Claudio's, sister, who is a nun, about his arrest:

Cla: "Acquaint her with the danger of my state;
Implore her, in my voice, that she make friends
To the strick deputy; bid her assay him.
I have great hope in that. For in her youth
There is a prone and speechless dialect
Such as move men; beside, she hath prosperous art
When she will play with reason and discourse,
And well she can persuade."

More later…

Sunday, June 22, 2008

I'll Be Your Tapster Still


Claudio, for his minor lapse in judgment, is to be hanged as part of the morals campaign that Angelo feels is required following a 14-year period of laxity under the Duke's rule. Shakespeare is careful to draw a contrast between the relative innocence of Claudio and Julietta's union, and the more illicit unions, or rather couplings, that have been occurring in the bawdy houses of Vienna, which Angelo is also shutting down, even if none of their occupants are being executed. Pompey, Mistress Overdone's servant, explains this while offering comfort to his aptly-named mistress:

Mistress O: "What proclamation, man?"

Pom: "All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down."
Miss. O: "O, Why, here's a change indeed in the commonwealth!
What shall become of me?"

Pom: "Come; fear not you: good counselors lack no clients; though you change your place, you need not change your trade; I'll be your tapster still; courage, there will be pity taken on you; you that have worn your eyes almost out in the service, you will be considered."

As with marriage, we rarely if ever hear discussion of the actual, useful purpose of making prostitution illegal. Criminalizing prostitution increases the value of chaste, or at least of non-promiscuous women. When the men of a society have easy and affordable access to an entire class of promiscuous women, those good female counselors will lack no clients. The obvious result will be that much less motivation for men to marry, not so long as they're getting the milk for a manageable price, and if not from their preferred cow than at least from a borrowed one.

Of course, there will always be true love, occasionally, but Claudio and Julietta prove that true lovers will be lax on formalities. As with marriage, the key is to capture excess male desire in order to secure social stability, a goal that benefits all, but is achieved only if each will sacrifice for it. Claudio himself appears to acquiesce in this rough justice as he questions his arresting officer, the Provost:

Cla: "Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to th'world?
Bear me to prison, where I am committed."

Pro: "I do it not in evil disposition,
But from Lord Angelo by special charge."

Cla: "Thus can the demi-god, Authority,
Make us pay down for our offence by weight.
The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will;
On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just."

More later…

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Stealth of Our Most Mutual Entertainment


Claudio is Measure 4 Measure's average Joe, a man who in the relaxed spirit of the times was at least virtuous enough to avoid the whorehouse abandon described by Mistress Overdone, even if he failed out of a kind of laziness to marry his Julietta, who is now round with his child. Under Angelo's sudden strictures, this omission becomes a hanging offense, whose purpose was, to use Napoleon's famous phrase, pour encourager les autres.

Cla: "Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order."

By contract Claudio means that by common law contract, he and Julietta should be considered married. In Shakespeare's England this situation arose if the couple affirmed their union before witnesses – basically as a private civil ceremony, not recognized by the church. Also "fast" likely meant "bound to me as" my wife, and denunciation meant they lacked only a public announcement to make it legal. Without such an announcement, their ceremony would not be recognized either by the state or the church. Hence Claudio's arrest. Basically, Shakespeare has concocted the most innocent-sounding minor lapse of legal formality he can come up with, affecting two lovers who are otherwise faithful and virtuous.

It's impossible to read this today without the issue of gay marriage arising in one's head. Shakespeare, in advocating fairness over justice, seems to be siding with true love over legal formality. Of course, his concept of true love includes constancy, or fidelity, as the sonnets repeatedly attest. One can only wonder how gay marriage might be viewed if those seeking it – especially gay men – honestly avowed to maintain fidelity in their marriages, and lived up to that vow with something close to the success of married heterosexuals; that is, at least successful enough to make society as a whole sexually restrained and functional.

The purpose of marriage, after all, is to capture male lust in order to render society stable. And Shakespeare is saying that Claudio's lust has in fact been properly captured, and even directed toward its ultimate goal. Claudio goes on:

Cla: ".......This we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.

More excuses, this time he explains that they didn't complete the marriage for lack of a dowry. Presumably Claudio's future baby momma Julietta was something like an orphan, and so her dowry was being held by relatives ("friends"). Claudio is saying that her folks didn't approve of the union, and that he and Julietta were trying to win them over ("Till time had made them for us."). But then of course she got pregnant, and started showing ("character too gross is writ").

Then Angelo took the reins from the Duke, learned of Claudio's situation, and condemned him to death, our encourager les autres – to encourage virtue in all others.

More later…
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