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

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Olmert and Antony & Cleopatra


Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in directing his country's fight with Hezbollah, now finds himself at the same crossroad where once stood Antony and Cleopatra.

As you will recall, the two lovers faced off against the Roman empire, or actually, Antony with part of the Roman army faced off against Caesar with another part. Dared by Caesar to fight by sea, Antony and Cleopatra both immediately accepted, throwing away the advantage Antony’s army held as a land-fighting force (yare means nimble on the water):

Enobarbus: “Your ships are not well manned;
Your mariners are muleteers, reapers, people
Engrossed by swift impress. In Caesar’s fleet
Are those that often have ‘gainst Pompey fought;
Their ships are yare, yours heavy. No disgrace
Shall fall you for refusing him at sea,
Being prepared for land.”

Ant: “By sea, by sea.”Eno: “Most worthy sir, you therein throw away
The absolute soldiership you have by land…”.

Ant: “I’ll fight at sea.”

Thus has Ehud Olmert, Israel’s Prime Minister and Mark Antony’s modern-day embodiment, thrown away the magnificent land-based advantages of the Israeli army in favor of the chimera, not of sea power, but in Olmert’s case of air power. The result: Israel has been playing whack-a-mole in civilian areas with Hezbollah rocket launchers. And since Hezbollah’s major strength is the moral equivalence of a Jew-hating Europe, the resulting deaths to Lebanese civilians has enabled Hezbollah to reap its intended public relations coup.

Nor has Olmert, by all indications, lent his attention exclusively to providing his military with what it needs to achieve victory. In the midst of war, Olmert announced his intention to proceed with the highly divisive policy of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Can you spell t-i-m-i-n-g? Olmert proposes this idea even as young Israeli men who bitterly oppose it face death upon his vacillating orders.

Apparently, the Cleopatran siren song of international approval, the smiling embrace of Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac and, who knows, perhaps someday Venezuela’s Chavez or even Mel Gibson himself, seem to weigh more heavily in Olmert’s mind than the need to win an existential war.

Eno (to Cleopatra): “…’tis said in Rome
That Photinus, an eunuch, and your maids,
Manage this war.”

Antony and Olmert are appealed to once more by a soldier and Canidus, Antony’s counselors, representing the Shakespearean equivalent of the blogosphere (and in particular the military-oriented “milblogs,” who reflect considerable military expertise), but to no avail:

Soldier: “By Hercules, I think I am ‘I the right.”

Can: “Soldier, thou art; but his whole action grows
Not in the power on ‘t. So our leader’s led
And we are women’s men.”

Antony’s sea campaign, like Olmert’s air campaign, is a disaster, and what’s more, in the middle of it, Cleopatra’s ship, bearing the United Nation’s flag of armed neutrality, takes flight. Ignominiously, Olmert and Antony pursue her, pursue the evanescent image of world approval, and the battle is lost. Afterwards, as a sated Hezbollah and Iran carve up the remains of Israel before a pacifist, shoulder-shrugging, world-weary world, Olmert approaches his beloved, his Kofi Annan in Egyptian dress, his Cleopatra:

Cleo: “…forgive my fearful sails.”

Ant: “Egypt, thou knewst too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by the’ strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after. O’er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew’st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Command me.”

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Midsummer's Night Pregnancy


My wife is pregnant. This is our first child, and the odd wonder of what is happening refuses to wear off. Every few days brings a new ache or pain, which my wife greets with an equanimity that is beyond me. Indeed she seems to welcome the more novel discomforts as continuing proof of his growing life. Too young for counsel, our son is naturally excused from any part he may be playing in her discomfort.

We have named him (or will name him, depending on your politics) Isaiah. You will recall that the prophet Isaiah was the one who persuaded the people of Israel, when in exile, that there was a purpose to their suffering - that it was intended to soften the hearts of their oppressors.

I know, we’re still waiting.

There is a pregnancy in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It is recounted by Titania, a goddess who is squabbling with her lord - but we would say co-deity - Oberon. Somewhat desultorily (to them), their tiff is causing ruin to the human world –

Titania: “The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The plowman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard…”

The two lovers are fighting over a young human boy. Titania, who came into possession of the boy when her human servant died in childbirth, won’t yield him up to Oberon, who seeks to make the boy his “henchman.” Out of love for the remembered mother, Titania will not give up the son:

“His mother was a vot’ress of my order
And in the spiced Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the’ embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait,
Following – her womb then rich with my young squire –
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake I will not part with him.”

Like a good republican, I at first typed, “to fetch me rifles.”

In any event, the image is of a young pregnant woman and her boss - a Greek goddess – sitting on a beach somewhere in India. How did they get to India? Well, Titania is a goddess, after all. It is nighttime and they are watching trading ships. The ships’ sails “conceive and grow big-bellied with the wanton wind,” and Titania's servant weaves about on the sand, using her pregnant belly to imitate them.

“To fetch my trifles, and return again
As from a voyage rich with merchandise.”

But it is no earthly voyage that my wife is on, now just a few weeks from her home port, as she fetches the rich merchandise of new life into the world from the place of its origin; that is, somewhere behind events, where our true purpose lies.

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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