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

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Henry VI Part I & Bennish the Nebbish


Jay Bennish, a high school geography teacher in Ohio, spent twenty minutes of class time berating the Bush administration, comparing the president to Hitler and describing the 9/11 attack as provoked:

Bennish: "(Bush) started off his speech talking about how America should be the country that dominates the world….Sounds a lot like the things that Adolph Hitler used to say."

"We're the only ones who are right. Everyone else is backwards. And it's our job to conquer the world…."

"In actuality, if you remember back to my first day, the Sept. 11 attacks were, according to Bin Laden, a direct response to our support of the nation of Israel, which they consider to be a terrorist regime….and they also did it because of what Bill Clinton (did) when he launched attacks into Afghanistan and Sudan …".

The demonization of your opponent – and Bennish's opponent seems to be the entire US government, not just Bush - was not unknown to Shakespeare. When the gains in France made under Henry V began to come undone during the reign of Henry VI, England even 200 years later (that is, at the time Shakespeare dramatized the events) could not accept that this had happened largely at the hands not only of the French but of a French woman - Joan of Arc. Playing to his audience, Shakespeare renames the Frech heroine Pucelle (whore). Here Talbot, Bedford and Burgundy sneak up on Joan, scaling ladders into her redoubt, all the while slandering her:

Tal: "Embrace we then this opportunity
As fitting best to quittance their deceit,
Contrived by art and baleful sorcery."

Bed: "Coward of France, how much he wrongs his fame,
Despairing of his own arm's fortitude,
To join with witches and the help of hell!

Bur: "Traitors have never other company,
But what's that Pucelle whom they term so pure?"

The "coward of France" is the Dauphin, who they claim has degraded himself by accepting Joan's assistance. Joan, of course, is the baleful sorcerer, the witch and the help of hell. Here is our modern-day Talbot taking aim at his multiple Joans of Arc:

Bennish: "Can you imagine? What is the world's number one single cause of death by a drug? What drug is responsible for the most deaths in the world? Cigarettes! Who is the world's largest producer of cigarettes and tobacco? The United States!"
"Where does it say anything about capitalism is an economic system that will provide everyone in the world with the basic needs that they need? IS that a part of this system? Do you see how this economic system is at odds with humanity? At odds with caring and compassion? It's at odds with human rights."

Bennish's demons have now expanded beyond Bush and the government to America itself, along with its handmaiden, capitalism. Meanwhile, back in France around 1400, Joan is kicking England's army across France like a soccer ball. Talbot is unable to comprehend Joan's military success in just the way that Bennish is unable to countenance President Bush's unapologetic prosecution of the war on terror. Because Joan of Arc and Bush can hardly represent competent leadership, Bennish and Talbot seek for supernatural explanations:

Tal/Bennish: "Foul fiend of France and hag of all despite,
Encompassed with thy lustful paramours!"

Well, ok, the accusation that President Bush encompasses himself with lustful paramours was absent from Bennish's rant. Anyhoo, here York at last captures Joan in Act V:

York: "Damsel of France, I think I have thee fast,
Unchain your spirits now with spelling charms,
And try if they can gain your liberty.
A goodly prize, fit for the devil's grace!
See how the ugly witch doth bend her brows
As if, with Circe, she would change my shape!"

Something of this irrationality survives today not only in Bennish's unmoored musings about Bush, but in the entire paranoid project of the American left, that finds vast right-wing conspiracies among Republican politicians, and imputes evil genius to Karl Rove as the mastermind and to Dick Cheney as the puppeteer of the current presidency. How could a mere woman like Joan of Arc; that is a mere Texan like George W. Bush, manage three successive electoral victories for his party, and succeed in so much else (tax cuts, supreme court justice appointments, the treating of terrorists as enemies rather than criminal defendants) that is inimical to the left?

It must be sorcery, dark magic, portents and spells.

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