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

Friday, November 10, 2006

Henry IV - To be so Pestered with a Popinjay


Bardseye is currently palpating the oddly persistent parallels of the Henry IV plays with the events of our times. Joining late? scroll down or use the archives from October, 06 onward.

When we left off, Hotspur, a member of the Percy family that put Henry IV bloodily and uneasily on the throne, is describing for the king a prancing and unmartial royal messenger. This messenger had arrived on the battlefield, just after Hotspur had put down a rebellion, to convey the king’s order that Hotspur deliver his prisoners to the king. Hotspur explains why he reacted so badly to the arrival of this message-bearer:

Hot: “With many holiday and lady terms
He questioned me, amongst the rest demanded
My prisoners in Your Majesty’s behalf,
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
To be so pestered with a popinjay,
Out of my grief and my impatience
Answered neglectingly I know not what,
He should, or he should not; for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns and drums and wounds – God save the mark! –

Clearly, on this day in early November, 2006, it makes sense to cast the American people themselves in the role of the royal messenger. After all, they have just delivered their message in the recent US election, expressing their dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war in Iraq by voting out of office the Republican congress.

This new pacifist America, a sweet-smelling popinjay, steps daintily over corpses both Iraqi and American to deliver a peremptory and insulting note to those who fight, bleed and die for that very popinjay’s freedoms. Even so, the US military, for whom Hotspur in his wounded dignity speaks, professes its loyalty to royal (but we would translate that to democratic and civilian) control:

Hot: “And I beseech you, let not his report
Come current for an accusation
Betwixt my love and your high majesty.”

After this speech, a royal counselor named Blunt intercedes, advising the king that Hotspur’s - the American military's - explanation is reasonable. The king – in whose role we are casting the American electorate, is having none of this:

King: “Why, yet he does deny his prisoners,
But with proviso and exception
That we at our own charge shall ransom straight
His brother-in-law, the foolish Mortimer,

......Shall our coffers then
Be emptied to redeem a traitor home?
Shall we buy treason…?
No, on the barren mountains let him starve!”

A little explanation is in order. The king refers to the fact that Hotspur is conditioning his transfer of the prisoners on the king’s agreement to ransom Hotspur's brother-in-law Mortimer. Mortimer was taken prisoner by “that great magician, damned Glendower, whose daughter, as we hear, [Mortimer] hath lately married.” It appears that Mortimer has made himself comfortable in Scotland, marrying his jailor’s daughter.

Now then, just what hallucinatory parallel can Bardseye muster for this rather specific set of events?

Well, obviously, Mortimer represents the American military’s honor. Mortimer - our military's honor - is held hostage in Iraq (Scotland, in the play) and can only be ransomed by the sovereign American people (that is, by the English sovereign, in the play). Alas, both the American people, who just voted in a pacifist democrat congressional majority, and Henry IV, king of England, are unwilling to make the trade. In the noble enterprise of the pacification of Scotland – that is, the noble enterprise of the liberation of Iraq – defeat is to be grasped from the jaws of victory. In 1991 we betrayed the Shia. This time we are preparing to betray the Sunnis. A new American idea of fairness? No wonder Hotspur is outraged:

King: “Send us your prisoners, or you will hear of it.

Hot: “An if the devil come and roar for them
I will not send them….”.

To be continued….

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