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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And Liberty Plucks Justice by the Nose


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

The plot thickens as we take the measure of the third scene of measure for measure, as we encounter the Duke himself in conference with a friar:

Duke: "No. Holy father, throw away that thought;
Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
Can pierce a complete bosom. Why I desire thee
To give me secret harbour hath a purpose
More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends
Of burning youth."

A very cool speech, and very modern in starting with a reference to a preceding off-stage comment of the friar's occurring just before the curtain, which Globe Theater didn't have anayway, rose. The Duke is implying that the friar has just asked him if the reason behind the Duke's request for a secret harbour in the monastery was for a romantic tryst. Not at all. The Dukester's complete bosom cannot be pierced by the dribbling dart of love. If you're smirking at Shakespeare's use of dribble, note that he only means that Cupid's dart would descend weakly and without effect if aimed at him. The Duke then gets to the point:

Duke: "…I have ever lov'd the life remov'd.
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies,
Where youth, and cost, and witless bravery keeps.
I have deliver'd to Lord Angelo –
A man of stricture and firm abstinence –
My absolute power and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me travell'd to Poland;
For so I have strew'd it in the common ear…."

The Duke's Poland trip was a ruse, though his reluctance to rule is real enough. His willingness to withdraw from public life mirrors that of Duke Senior in As You Like It, who exiled to the woods proclaims:

Duke S: " And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in teh running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it."

Or King Ferdinand of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost:

King F: "Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives
Live register'd upon our brazen tombs,"

Oh yes, and Hamlet:

Ham: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

M4M's Duke, however, has withdrawn from courtly life for a specific reason; he seeks to correct the moral laxity that has befallen his realm:

Duke: "We have strict statutes and most biting laws,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o'er grown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not for use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock'd than fear'd;"

If the Children's Services Division ever gets wind of this speech, Shakespeare would be tied up in child custody hearings until the Rapture, as my Baptist neighbors here in North Carolina put it. Spare not the rod, and spoil not the populace, is what the Duke seems to be saying, or more exactly don't threaten the rod if you're not going to use it.

The modern parallels are obvious and arise whenever a totalitarian state loses its jackbooted nerve and fails to sufficiently terrorize its subjects. The Soviet Union's crackdowns on restive Hungarians in 1956 and restive Czechs of the Prague Spring of 1968 helped hold all the Soviet satellites in check, while its namby-pamby reaction to Poland in the 1980s led to its downfall. China took heed in responding to Tiananmen Square in 1989. And of course an endless list of insufficiently oppressive dictators, from Ceausescu to Marcos to Sukarno, would agree with the Bard on this point.

Duke: "…So our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose.
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum."

In the New York City of the 1990s, Policy Chief Braxton clearly played Angelo to Mayor Giuliani's Duke, as the dynamic duo secured a famous turnaround in public safety through Braxton's "broken windows" policy of enforcing small laws in order to forestall the violation of larger ones. Braxton revived decrees that had been for far longer than fourteen years dead to infliction, allowing the criminal worms within the Big Apple liberty to pluck justice by the nose. The new policy's success bred a bruised mayoral ego over who should get credit for the improvement. (In fact James Q. Wilson deserved credit for the concept, if not its execution in New York).

More later…

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Horse Whereon the Governor Doth Ride


Shakespeare is now ready to have Claudio comment on the injustice of whorehouses being merely closed or shifted to new locations while he, a willing husband but for a legal technicality, is to be hanged:

Cla: "And the new deputy now for the Duke –
Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,
Or whether that the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets its straight feel the spur;

The obvious biblical parallel occurred 300 years ago when Rehoboam, after succeeding Solomon, responded to the people's request to lighten the heavy Solomonic tax burden by arrogantly raising the burden. Thus were the Hebrew people made a horse whereon their governor doth ride – who, newly in the seat, that they may know he can command, let them straight feel the spur.

The most striking parallel to Angelo's accession in our era would be the Ayatollah Khomeini's accession in Iran. Of course, the Iranian people after their unwanted march toward modernity offered them under the Shah (a march oddly accompanied by the ungentle prodding of his SAVAK secret service) seemed if anything to be seeking the spur of Sharia law, an utter surrender to theocracy. Today, after thirty years of such rule, we continue to hear murmurings of discontent, but for some odd reason our own government, whether ruled by people with little d's after their names or little r's, strangely refuses to encourage this.

You would think that if our own greatest hope for avoiding an eternity of nuclear blackmail at the hands of madmen was a revolt of the horse whereon the madmen doth ride, that is the Iranian people, that we would be encouraging the revolt. Is it that our own governors seek, even if ever so unconsciously, to be that much more needed, and more looked to for leadership, and more depended on by our own body public, and are for that reason, possibly in a manner unacknowledged even to themselves, negligently permitting the emergence of such a fearful world? War is the health of the state, and our state, by which I mean government, emits the rude health of steroids. Claudio goes on:

Cla: "Whether the tyranny be in his place,
Or in his eminence that fills it up,
I stagger in – but this new governor
Awakes me all the enrolled penalties
Which have, like unscoured armour, hung by th' wall
So long, that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,
And none of them been worn; and for a name
Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
Freshly on me; 'tis surely for a name."

In 2002, then New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer subpoenaed 24 crisis pregnancy centers that counseled women to maintain their pregnancies, alleging that by doing so the centers were practicing medicine without a license. Thus did this future governor awaken enrolled penalties which like unscoured armour had hung by th' wall. Later, as governor, he supported a law that would have allowed non-doctors, including dentists, social workers and "health care practitioners" to perform abortions, an ironic consummation of forty years in the evolution of abortion laws, which were supposed to put a stop to back-room abortions, not legalize them.

But irony was to be Spitzer's watchword; he would later famously resign as governor in order to avoid prosecution under the Mann Act for his serial leasing of high-end prostitutes. Of course, the threatened use of the Mann Act against the governor could itself be considered an awakening of enrolled penalties that hung by the wall like unscoured armour, except that the governor, back when he was attorney general, and seeking to be governor ("and for a name"), had himself used obscure laws for unintended and oppressive purposes. Spitzer used the 1921 Martin Act, intended to prosecute "bucket shops" that defrauded small investors in the 1920s, to prosecute Wall Street firms for their research practices. The law allowed Spitzer to seek criminal penalties without proving criminal intent.

Well, I've run far afield, but Shakespeare saw Spitzer as clearly from 400 years in the past as we are now able to see him, at last, in our rear-view mirrors. And beside Spitzer stand an army of opportunistic prosecutors, from Senator Joe McCarthy and his Iago-like Lieutenant Bobby Kennedy, using a loyalty pledge to go after communists in Hollywood, (without first asking just how much damage a communist can do in Hollywood, except perhaps to Hollywood), to Lael Rubin, the prosecutor of the trumped-up McMartin Preschool abuse cases in Manhattan Beach in the late 1990s, to John Hathorne, judge but in practice the prosecutor of the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. And of course further candidates for modern Angelos are the still too-hot-to handle Whitewater-related claims brought by Ken Starr against a dem white house and the Plame game pursued by Patrick Fitzgerald against a rep one.

Meanwhile, our original Claudio begs Lucio to tell his, Claudio's, sister, who is a nun, about his arrest:

Cla: "Acquaint her with the danger of my state;
Implore her, in my voice, that she make friends
To the strick deputy; bid her assay him.
I have great hope in that. For in her youth
There is a prone and speechless dialect
Such as move men; beside, she hath prosperous art
When she will play with reason and discourse,
And well she can persuade."

More later…

Sunday, June 22, 2008

I'll Be Your Tapster Still


Claudio, for his minor lapse in judgment, is to be hanged as part of the morals campaign that Angelo feels is required following a 14-year period of laxity under the Duke's rule. Shakespeare is careful to draw a contrast between the relative innocence of Claudio and Julietta's union, and the more illicit unions, or rather couplings, that have been occurring in the bawdy houses of Vienna, which Angelo is also shutting down, even if none of their occupants are being executed. Pompey, Mistress Overdone's servant, explains this while offering comfort to his aptly-named mistress:

Mistress O: "What proclamation, man?"

Pom: "All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down."
Miss. O: "O, Why, here's a change indeed in the commonwealth!
What shall become of me?"

Pom: "Come; fear not you: good counselors lack no clients; though you change your place, you need not change your trade; I'll be your tapster still; courage, there will be pity taken on you; you that have worn your eyes almost out in the service, you will be considered."

As with marriage, we rarely if ever hear discussion of the actual, useful purpose of making prostitution illegal. Criminalizing prostitution increases the value of chaste, or at least of non-promiscuous women. When the men of a society have easy and affordable access to an entire class of promiscuous women, those good female counselors will lack no clients. The obvious result will be that much less motivation for men to marry, not so long as they're getting the milk for a manageable price, and if not from their preferred cow than at least from a borrowed one.

Of course, there will always be true love, occasionally, but Claudio and Julietta prove that true lovers will be lax on formalities. As with marriage, the key is to capture excess male desire in order to secure social stability, a goal that benefits all, but is achieved only if each will sacrifice for it. Claudio himself appears to acquiesce in this rough justice as he questions his arresting officer, the Provost:

Cla: "Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to th'world?
Bear me to prison, where I am committed."

Pro: "I do it not in evil disposition,
But from Lord Angelo by special charge."

Cla: "Thus can the demi-god, Authority,
Make us pay down for our offence by weight.
The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will;
On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just."

More later…

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Stealth of Our Most Mutual Entertainment


Claudio is Measure 4 Measure's average Joe, a man who in the relaxed spirit of the times was at least virtuous enough to avoid the whorehouse abandon described by Mistress Overdone, even if he failed out of a kind of laziness to marry his Julietta, who is now round with his child. Under Angelo's sudden strictures, this omission becomes a hanging offense, whose purpose was, to use Napoleon's famous phrase, pour encourager les autres.

Cla: "Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order."

By contract Claudio means that by common law contract, he and Julietta should be considered married. In Shakespeare's England this situation arose if the couple affirmed their union before witnesses – basically as a private civil ceremony, not recognized by the church. Also "fast" likely meant "bound to me as" my wife, and denunciation meant they lacked only a public announcement to make it legal. Without such an announcement, their ceremony would not be recognized either by the state or the church. Hence Claudio's arrest. Basically, Shakespeare has concocted the most innocent-sounding minor lapse of legal formality he can come up with, affecting two lovers who are otherwise faithful and virtuous.

It's impossible to read this today without the issue of gay marriage arising in one's head. Shakespeare, in advocating fairness over justice, seems to be siding with true love over legal formality. Of course, his concept of true love includes constancy, or fidelity, as the sonnets repeatedly attest. One can only wonder how gay marriage might be viewed if those seeking it – especially gay men – honestly avowed to maintain fidelity in their marriages, and lived up to that vow with something close to the success of married heterosexuals; that is, at least successful enough to make society as a whole sexually restrained and functional.

The purpose of marriage, after all, is to capture male lust in order to render society stable. And Shakespeare is saying that Claudio's lust has in fact been properly captured, and even directed toward its ultimate goal. Claudio goes on:

Cla: ".......This we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.

More excuses, this time he explains that they didn't complete the marriage for lack of a dowry. Presumably Claudio's future baby momma Julietta was something like an orphan, and so her dowry was being held by relatives ("friends"). Claudio is saying that her folks didn't approve of the union, and that he and Julietta were trying to win them over ("Till time had made them for us."). But then of course she got pregnant, and started showing ("character too gross is writ").

Then Angelo took the reins from the Duke, learned of Claudio's situation, and condemned him to death, our encourager les autres – to encourage virtue in all others.

More later…

Friday, June 13, 2008

Purchased as many Diseases Under Her Roof


(We currently are blogging Measure 4 Measure, a Shakespeare play with striking parallels to the major issues of our era).

Lucio, an outsized, Mercutio-like character, and two others described only as "gentlemen" begin a rapid-fire comic trade of insults. The references are beyond obscure to any modern reader who isn't a tenured English literature professor of the sort who elects not to write for a general audience, but the dispute centers on which of them is more a commoner and which more a gentleman, with the implication that whoever is more a gentleman is also more likely to have the French disease, or syphilis.

As the scene progresses we begin to see that this subject, erotic excess and its somber consequences, is being offered for far more than comic relief. Shakespeare is describing a collapse of public morals, and, in the form of Angelo, a reactionary and authoritarian response.

We could be in the U.S. around 1915, watching temperance matrons campaigning – successfully, come to think of it – to outlaw alcohol, or we could be in Iran in 1975, watching the Ayatollah Khomeini return in glory to an Iranian people (well, the 50% who are Persian) who were recoiling from the Shah's attempt at modernization, or we could be watching in 1925 the libertinism of the Weimar Republic, that led of course to history's most infamous reaction.

And obviously, we could be watching in 1995 as the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan, removing ancient alien statues from their settings, removing girls from school, or as the Taliban's honored guest Al Qaida proceeded to train tens of thousands of fighters from throughout the Middle East in preparation for the most ambitious of reactions, against the supposed decadence and libertinism of the entire Western – but really modern – democratic project.

But I digress. Returning to the play, we witness the arrival of a favorite creation of mine, Mistress Overdone. Lucio refers to her as Madam Mitigation, because her occupation as a lady of the evening mitigates her customers' desires.

Luc: ""Behold, behold, where Madam Mitigation comes! I have purchased as many diseases under her roof as come to –"

2 Gent: "To what I pray?"Lucio answers, as come to judge, suggesting a larger justice at work in all this purchasing of sex. More jokes follow about venereal diseases and how they hollow out a person's bones, amidst Mistress Overdone's complaint about how her tough times have been getting for her:

Overdone: "O thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk."

The sweat presumably refers to the plague, though why the Vienna of this Duke would be experiencing war, plague, a spate of hangings, and poverty is not explained. It's worth noting however that London was suffering all these things in the winter of 1603-04. So Shakespeare may be allowing himself a wink at the audience here, though the deeper parallel he seems to be offering is it may be because the fictional Vienna he is describing is itself undergoing a similar time of troubles. A time of troubles that Angelo, however, intends to rectify.

Overdone tells Lucio that a Signior Claudio, known to all as a perfectly fine fellow, has just been arrested:

Over: "Nay by I know 'tis so. I saw him arrested; saw him carried away; and which is more, within these three days his head to be chopped off."

Luc: "…Art thou sure of this?"Over: "O, I am too sure of it; and it is for getting Madam Julietta with child."

More later….

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

But Like a Thrifty Goddess


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

We return as the Duke, once again investing Angelo with the trappings of his own power, prepares to leave Vienna to handle some vaguely described emergency:

Duke: "Our haste from hence is of so quick condition
That it prefers itself, and leaves unquestioned
Matters of needful value. We shall write to you…"

But if Shakespeare isn't telling us yet very much about the Duke, he lets us see Angelo quite clearly, or at least he lets us see him as the oddly infatuated Duke sees him:

Duke: "Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not.

Angelo is one whose virtue shines outward from himself, embodying the ideal of human conduct that heaven itself intended for us. The conclusion that Angelo is either a religious figure, or at the very least deeply formed and inspired by religion, is inescapable – as if Shakespeare's choice for his name left us with much doubt in the first place. But the Duke isn't done:

Duke: "Spirits are not finely touch'd
But to fine issues; nor nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks and use."

Huh? Well, Nature lent Angelo his spirit, or in this case his character and talent, with the expectation that Angelo would use these gifts for some profitable purpose – which is why Nature is cast in the role of creditor. Thanks and use? Thanks to Nature for the loan of one's gifts, and repayment with interest (use, probably related to usury) in the form, again of the proper use of those gifts. But the key point is the idea that each tiny facet and aspect of what Nature has given Angelo, and by extension each of us, was lent as past of Nature's specific design. Talent, you might say, on loan from God.

Anyway, if anything, our self-effacing Duke seems to be more impressed with Angelo than he is with himself, saying as he departs Vienna on his undisclosed ("my haste may not admit it.") mission:

Duke" "Your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good, Give me your hand;
I'll privily away. I love the people,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes;
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause…"

How refreshing – a leader so virtuous that he avoids the glamour of publicity. Like Howard Hughes and Marlene Dietrich, he vants to be alone. At the same time, there we have that theme of the Duke's again, shirking his duties, laying them off on someone else.

Is this a common occurrence? Well, flipping through just this particular week's news headlines, we see presidential candidate McCain handling the hardship of $4.00 a gallon gas by informing the nation that he "respects the right of the states to control the waters off their coasts." But the law actually has it that the states don't own any offshore waters, at least not unless the federal government gives it to them. And this has traditionally happened only for tidelands, not ocean waters 50 to 200 miles offshore.

So does Duke McCain announce to Arnold "Angelo" Schwarzenegger and the equally Angelic Charlie Christ (the current Governator of Florida):

"Your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good."

More later.

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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