The show must go on

Being an enquiry into the mechanism of Authority in two Shakespeare’s historical plays.

KING LEAR: Dost thou know me, fellow?
KENT: No, sir; but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.
KING LEAR: What’s that?
KENT: Authority.

The game of History

In the taxonomy of Shakespearean dramatic production, along with Comedies and Tragedies, comes a third category: Historical Plays. These are usually tragedies for the structure, and so the name refers to the subject, taken from the History of rising Britain. But we can define them otherwise: plays about History itself. That is to say, plays dealing with the problem of what History is. Going further, let’s say that Shakespeare’s plays were someway the state-of-the-art paradigm in understanding historical phenomena. Models in which it would be possible to follow causes and meanings of political events deep inside their supposed place of origin: the human heart.

The fact that these plays are all named after Kings is representative of Modernity’s conception of History, as a battleground of great personalities. The laws of History were the rules of a game played at court; a sometimes bloody game, a game of sex and violence, and more than everything a game of words. These games, these rules, these laws are the topic of Shakespearean tragedies.

The Eighteenth century was yet to come, and all this human-centred History to finish into the archive of past ingenuity. In the Epilogue of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy says that this vision of History is dead: the truth is that something moves individuals and masses beyond their will – like the planets and the seas. In the same years, Marx was trying to find out what this force was. But Tolstoy understood that, whatever the answer was, the problem of History could not be separated from the problem of power. In fact, this is the same problem, and leads us to the following questions: How can the individual influence History? Where lies the Power? What is the origin of Authority?

Shakespeare has one and only answer to the problem of Authority. And this is not a morality that we can fish out from his plays, but the root of his poetics: Authority is ruling the language. Working on reality as if it were a text. Magic. Not only to be the best actor in someone else’s play, but spreading a new play into reality, directing the characters, facing them not with a dagger but with words. So, in a paraphrase of the well known quotation, authority deals with the stagification of the world. For Shakespeare theatre is not a way to represent Power: it is the very essence of it.

Ruling the language

“If the source of power lies neither in the physical nor in the moral qualities of him who possesses it, it must evidently be looked for elsewhere”, wrote Tolstoy. That brings us back to Shakespeare. Take Richard III: he has neither physical nor moral qualities, but he has power. So what is the play about? Nothing less than describing the dynamics of authority-building from these very premises.

The Authority of Richard III does not lie in some objective superiority. Thus, for authority is not grounded on what is, it has to be grounded on what is not. Authority is an art of illusion, the art of the “subtle, false, and treacherous”. But the shifting of what is and what is not in order to make one (the significant) appears to be the other (the signified) has a more common name: Language. So when one of the murderers says to Richard that “Talkers are not good doers”, we have to taste the irony. Richard well knows the difference between him and a common murderer: the difference between the ruler and the mere executioner, between force (subject of Matter) and power (subject of History).

Richard’s path to kingship – and the path back to defeat – is all built with words. The strategy is almost simple: convincing his enemies “by drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams” that they have to fear each other. First, convincing the King that the Duke of Gloucester is destined to murder him. Then, pretending to be in love with Lady Anne, in order to secure for himself a loving queen and an official forgiving for his war crimes. And so on. The last step before the crown is Richard’s claiming he’s the victim of some “devilish plots” and “hellish charms” in order to accuse Hasting of betrayal, catching him in a word trap.

Richard has a Machiavellian plan in his mind, and knows exactly every step he has take. He’s the author of the play from inside the play, deciding everything that will happen and how. Even if he’s defeated, we know that he has decided that it has to end like this. As suggested by the deep wisdom of a game of words, his “authority” is to be the author of the play everyone calls reality.

The power of words

What seen in King Richard III is not different from what we can see in the other plays, whether explicitly historical or not. Theatre is the perfect way to represent the mechanism of power. In a play, all the dramatic steps have to be linguistic acts. A battle can’t be represented: it has to be told. Thus, theatre presents reality as structured by speech acts. Everything else is contingent. For Shakespeare, it’s not to deal with the limits of the medium, but to use the right medium: the one that catches the essence of what happens, showing the mechanism of History. Otherwise, it would have no meaning to make a play – King Henry V, for instance – about something so impossible to represent as the war between the French and the English.

Henry V seems to deal with the problem of representing what can’t be represented: the purpose of the Chorus is to cover this supposed lack with narration. In fact, the play shows only what has to be shown. We don’t need to see the battle, because every battle is won before the battle itself. Just hear Henry’s speeches: who could lose a battle after being flattered and exalted by this powerful rhetoric?

But Henry himself is determined by words in “decision” to move war to France: the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pretending that France belongs to England, because of some brand new Scriptures-inspired point of view on the Salic law. Henry orders him not to “fashion, wrest or bow” his reading, underlining the truth of the claim. But behind this image of hermeneutic loyalty, it’s clear that Canterbury, with the silent approbation of the King, is weaving the ideological cover for something that is already decided.

So that it won’t be the English to attack France, but the French to be punished for not accepting to resign the “crown and kingdom indirectly held/ From him the native and true challenger”: “in the name of God Almighty” of course. The same reference to God’s name we find in Richmond’s speeches against Richard III. But even if he’s helping to legitimate Henry and Richmond, Shakespeare knew the mechanism well, as these are the words he puts in Richard’s mouth: “And thus I clothe my nude naked villainy/ With odd old ends stolen forth of Holy Writ,/ And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

The mask of Authority

Saying that politics is an art of lying wouldn’t be the whole truth. Just watch Richard on the scene: he’s not lying, he’s acting. We know the difference. Our mistake is to think that we know, that actors on the scene know, but that characters don’t know. In fact, everyone on the scene – in the tragedy – knows that he’s acting. But for everyone is acting, as on a stage, no one will spoil the game.

A political act is a theatrical act. The politician is somehow split between two: the person and the actor, the man and the king. The same splitting we can notice in Queen Elizabeth’s poem “On Monsieur’s departure”. Here by a parallel syntax she opposes her feelings to the mask she has to wear: “I grieve, and dare not show my discontent”. Richard’s madness in act V is the perfect metaphor of this splitting, which ends with the schizophrenic monologue:

What, do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by;
Richard loves Richard, that is, I and I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am!
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why,
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself!
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain – yet I lie, I am not.

Authority is a terrible weight to carry, and Richard is defeated because he’s unable to play his part until the end of the show. He starts to feel a conflict between his being and the mask, and that’s why he’s defeated. He looses the mask. He stops acting. He gives up. Richard is defeated by himself, in himself: not by Richmond.

The same happens in a very similar play, Macbeth. Usurpation brings a punishment in itself: it’s not mere sense of guilt, it’s the feeling of a distance from the role – a metaphysical distance between truth and appearance. The bad king is unconcealed as he shows he’s an actor who can’t stand up to the part of a king. And being unconcealed, without showing himself as a king, he’s no more king. Authority isn’t something that has to be, but an illusion that has to be constantly broadcasted – an endless show.

EVEY: That’s very important to you, isn’t it? All that theatrical stuff.
V: It’s everything, Evey. The perfect entrance, the grand illusion. It’s everything. And I’m going to bring the house down. They’ve forgotten the drama of it all, you see. They abandoned their scripts when the world withered in the glare of nuclear footlights. I’m going to remind them about melodrama (…) You see, Evey, all the world’s a stage.

Alan Moore, V for Vendetta, 1981.