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

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Elected Him Our Absence to Supply


(Bardseyeview is blogging Measure 4 Measure, a Shakespeare play with striking parallels to our own times).

As Measure for Measure begins, the Duke of Vienna is sounding out his advisor Escalus on whether it was wise to elevate the authority of a fellow named Angelo:

Duke: "What figure of us think you he will bear?
For you must know, we have with special soul
Elected him our absence to supply;
Lent him our terror, drest him with our love,
And given his deputation all the organs
Of our own power. What think you of it?"

In saying what figure of us, the Duke is of course using not the editorial "we" or even the schizophrenic "we," but the royal "we." Also, more than merely elevating him, the Duke has been allowing Angelo to act as his substitute - presumably during business trips – since the Duke elected him "our absence to supply." You get the idea that the Duke is uncomfortable with the burden of his responsibilities, and is seeking to shift them onto someone else.

In fact, later on he will make this explicit. It turns out that because of the Duke's unwillingness to enforce the laws, Vienna has been having a 1960s-style flirtation with flirtation. Skipping for the moment the play's second scene for its third, we again see the Duke, still in Vienna, confiding in Friar Thomas:

Duke: "We have strict statutes and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,
Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey….In time the rod
Becomes more mocked than feared, so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose."

The Duke then confesses to the Friar his reason for handing the reins over to Angelo:

Duke: "I have on Angelo imposed the office;
Who may in th'ambush of my name strike home,"

He wants Angelo to do his dirty work.

The idea is hardly new – or rather it is hardly old. Our Congress likes nothing better than to avoid decisions, from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that effectively shrugged off the burden of voting on whether to involve the nation further in the Vietnam War, to well, to every single U.S. military involvement since then. Though we, forget, U.S. Congress was if anything stunned by President George W. Bush's insistence that it actually vote on the Iraq War, as they well knew the political dynamite they were being forced to handle.

And our net may be cast beyond U.S. shores as well.

For example, the deal so many Middle Eastern governments have made with their more extreme wings, in particular the Saudi Princes' implicit deal with their Angelo, the country's well-heeled Wahabbists, which said "make what mischief you like outside our borders, but leave our domestic arrangements alone," mirrored our Duke's relationship with his Angelo, who is indeed presented as either a religious figure, or a figure infused with a particular religious spirit that, like the Wahabbists, denies the role and influence of the body.

More later….

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