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

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hezbollah and Fortenbras


Over the last six years in southern Lebanon, a visitor more versed in Shakespeare than in the politics of the Middle East would be excused in thinking he had stumbled upon a hotter duplicate of Hamlet’s Denmark. We will name our visitor to Lebanon Marcellus, and have him ask a question of his guide, Horatio:

Mar: "And why such daily cast of brazen cannon
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-laborer with the day?"

Why all these war preparations, pursued in sweaty haste? Horatio explains that Norway's new king, Fortenbras, intends to recover lands lost in a previous war between Hamlet's father and Fortenbras' father. Indeed, Hamlet's dad killed Fortenbras' dad in that conflict, setting the stage for a rematch.

As is now nakedly apparent, Hezbollah has no such excuse as the younger Fortenbras, in seeking to recover lands lost in a prior war. Israel left Lebanon to its own devices six years ago. Most of Lebanon thereafter proceeded to seek stability, democracy and peace. But weakened by a 15-year civil war, its new government was powerless to resist a de facto occupation by the Iranian-financed Hezbollah.

Hamlet provides an instructive parallel to this situation as well. The young Fortenbras is not actually empowered to be recovering lands from anyone. It was not he but his uncle, called Old Norway in the play, who ascended to the crown after his father was killed by Hamlet’s father in that prior war. But just as Hezbollah did not wait to acquire a parliamentary majority in Lebanon, Fortenbras could not wait to acquire power legitimately by succession. Here Horatio explains how Fortenbras…:

Hor: "Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes
For food and diet to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in 't,…".

Fortenbras has put together an army composed of criminal riff-raff, from the skirts of Norway – the hidden corners of his nation, who are fighting not for a noble cause but for food and diet; that is, out of poverty and desperation.

Well, Hezbollah’s army is similarly illegitimate, but not similarly motivated. A bizarre, fascist ideology animates its minions. Casting about in Shakespeare for a parallel to Islamic Fascist Extremism might take us to the France described in Henry VI part I, under Joan of Arc, or to the absurd imposition of religious law described in Measure for Measure. We can even find women and children individually targeted for murder in Macbeth, Richard III, and of course Titus Andronicus.

But really, an entire culture motivated to exterminating wholesale the women and children of another culture is something even Shakespeare didn’t think needed to be addressed as part of the human experience.

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