The show must go on
22 maggio 2006
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?
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, letâs 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 elseâs 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
âIf 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 elsewhereâ, 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 âsubtle, false, and treacherousâ. 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 âTalkers are not good doersâ, 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).
Richardâs path to kingship â and the path back to defeat â is all built with words. The strategy is almost simple: convincing his enemies âby drunken prophecies, libels, and dreamsâ 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 Richardâs claiming heâs the victim of some âdevilish plotsâ and âhellish charmsâ 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. Heâs the author of the play from inside the play, deciding everything that will happen and how. Even if heâs 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 âauthorityâ 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 canât be represented: it has to be told. Thus, theatre presents reality as structured by speech acts. Everything else is contingent. For Shakespeare, itâs 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 â King Henry V, for instance â 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 canât 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 donât need to see the battle, because every battle is won before the battle itself. Just hear Henryâs speeches: who could lose a battle after being flattered and exalted by this powerful rhetoric?
But Henry himself is determined by words in âdecisionâ 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 âfashion, wrest or bowâ his reading, underlining the truth of the claim. But behind this image of hermeneutic loyalty, itâs clear that Canterbury, with the silent approbation of the King, is weaving the ideological cover for something that is already decided.
So that it wonât be the English to attack France, but the French to be punished for not accepting to resign the âcrown and kingdom indirectly held/ From him the native and true challengerâ: âin the name of God Almightyâ of course. The same reference to Godâs name we find in Richmondâs speeches against Richard III. But even if heâs helping to legitimate Henry and Richmond, Shakespeare knew the mechanism well, as these are the words he puts in Richardâs mouth: âAnd 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.â
The mask of Authority
Saying that politics is an art of lying wouldnât be the whole truth. Just watch Richard on the scene: heâs not lying, heâs acting. We know the difference. Our mistake is to think that we know, that actors on the scene know, but that characters donât know. In fact, everyone on the scene â in the tragedy â knows that heâs 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 Elizabethâs poem âOn Monsieurâs departureâ. Here by a parallel syntax she opposes her feelings to the mask she has to wear: âI grieve, and dare not show my discontentâ. Richardâs 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 â yet I lie, I am not.
Authority is a terrible weight to carry, and Richard is defeated because heâs unable to play his part until the end of the show. He starts to feel a conflict between his being and the mask, and thatâs why heâs 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: itâs not mere sense of guilt, itâs the feeling of a distance from the role â a metaphysical distance between truth and appearance. The bad king is unconcealed as he shows heâs an actor who canât stand up to the part of a king. And being unconcealed, without showing himself as a king, heâs no more king. Authority isnât something that has to be, but an illusion that has to be constantly broadcasted â an endless show.
EVEY: Thatâs very important to you, isnât it? All that theatrical stuff.
V: Itâs everything, Evey. The perfect entrance, the grand illusion. Itâs everything. And Iâm going to bring the house down. Theyâve forgotten the drama of it all, you see. They abandoned their scripts when the world withered in the glare of nuclear footlights. Iâm going to remind them about melodrama (âŚ) You see, Evey, all the worldâs a stage.
Alan Moore, V for Vendetta, 1981.