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

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Henry V, Church, State and Islam


The struggle between secular and religious power within Islamic societies is something we in the West are watching with rapt attention, since our own future security seems to weigh in the balance. The theocratic vision of Saudi Arabia and Iran has been imposed through the brutal enforcement of iron laws. But we should not regard this situation as foreign to our own development. Angelo, who is charged with prosecuting moral offenses, in Measure for Measure:

"We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror."

The puritanical zeal of 1590's Vienna that Shakespeare satirized in Measure for Measure finds its parallel today in Islam. A religious vision that enforces the separation of the sexes and the subjugation of women is also imposing unendurable burdens on young men, resulting in what is at heart a sexual sickness. Maddened and humiliated at their core, they lash out at other cultures over a wound imposed by their own. But the mullahs in Iran and the princelings among the Sauds have far too much invested, and too much to lose, by reforming.

Christian churchmen in the Renaissance could relate. In Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury huddles with the Bishop of Ely over a tax bill proposed by the late Henry IV that if passed would confiscate church property (Temporal means used for secular purposes; esquires means gentry, one rank below knights; lazars means lepers; indigent means poor; corporal means physical) :

"Ely: "But how, my lord, shall we resist it now?"

Cant: "It must be thought on. If it pass against us,
We lose the better half of our possession.
For all the temporal lands which men devout
By testament have given to the Church
Would they strip from us, being valued thus:
Full fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights,
Six thousand and two hundred good esquires,
And, to relief of lazars and weak age
Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil,
A hundred almshouses right well supplied;
And to the coffers of the king besides
A thousand pounds by th' year. Thus runs the bill.

Ely: "That would drink deep."

Cant: "'Twould drink the cup and all."

And of course the Iranian clerics would have to add to that list the gestating and still-unhatched nuclear weapons over which they now brood, while the Saudi Wahabbis would be surrendering the world's biggest pot of sweet crude oil.

Shakespeare's writing encompassed the religious struggle which in the next fifty years would ignite religious civil wars throughout Europe, The resolution of those wars starting in the 1640's involved an increasingly official separation of church and state, the foundation of the spiritual peace the West largely enjoyed for the past 350 years, right up until last week, when France exploded in flames.

It is to be remembered how ancient the division of political authority in the West is, not only between church and state but between ruler and (vaguely) representatives of the ruled. After all, the Archbishop and the Bishop are discussing the former King's mere proposal to confiscate church lands. The new King, Henry V, must still get it passed. And this is a history play not only for us but for Shakespeare as well, referring to events in the 1340's.

So we ask a great deal of Islamic societies by expecting them to catch up so quickly to something we were able to do so slowly. Nevertheless, given the dangers involved, there seems little choice but to ask, indeed to insist. Shakespeare, however, and as always, helps us refocus on the human dimension of what is before us.

I will leave you with the Archbishop's estimation of Henry V, who inherits the confiscation bill from his father but does not enforce it, valuing a proper balance between the secular and religious realms. In two prequels, Henry V (then Price Hal) was a practical joker and ne'er-do-well, keeping (bad) company with Falstaff and despaired of by his father, but he has now emerged as a great, balanced and wise ruler. Indeed he represents the flower of what a tolerant Western society may produce (a chartered libertine means a free spirit who is licensed to roam at will; prelate means churchman):

Cant: "Hear him but reason in divinity,
And, all-admiring, with an inward wish
You would desire the King were made a prelate.
Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs
You would say it hath been all in all his study,
List his discourse of war, and you shall hear
A fearful battle rendered you in music.
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter, that, when he speaks,
The air, a chartered libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears
To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences…."

Here's a related post from the always recommendable politicalteen.

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