Liberty Matters

Power and Innocent Blood

John Alvis begins his intriguing discussion of absolute power in Shakespeare’s plays with reference to Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In reply, I would like to begin by suggesting an alternate quotation from the much-neglected political theorist Abigail Adams, who noted that “arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken.” I turn to Adams because, while I agree with Alvis that Shakespeare’s plays are deeply interested in the problem of the corrupting influence of power, they are even more interested in the problems that arise for ordinary people as a result of the instability of power and the resulting “game of thrones” that is played among rulers.
Given that the majority of Shakespeare’s life, from birth to middle age, was spent living under the stable reign of the famously long-lived Elizabeth I, it may seem strange to think of him as a writer with profound concerns about political instability. But the memories of the aftermath of the death of Henry VIII—Edward’s six-year reign followed by Jane Grey’s nine-day reign, and Mary’s five years on the throne, all surrounded by tumult and dissent—were still fresh in the historical memories of the English. The fact that a new monarch could easily mean a new state religion and renewed persecutions of those who failed to hew to the official faith added to these worries. And with the unmarried and childless Queen Elizabeth’s persistent refusal to name an heir, the people of England were rightfully worried about their future throughout her reign, no matter how stable, wealthy, and peaceable this Elizabethan Golden Age can seem from a distance.
What this meant for Shakespeare as an Elizabethan Englishman was a steady flood of political pamphlets written in support of or in opposition to various potential candidates for a successor to the Queen and an equally steady flood of worries about the ways in which successions could go wrong.
The plays naturally reflect and reflect upon this cultural preoccupation.
We could begin nearly anywhere, but perhaps the most succession- and stability-obsessed of Shakespeare’s plays are the Henriad, or Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of history plays. These plays, beginning with Richard II (est. date of composition 1595-6), taking us through parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV (1597-8), and culminating with Henry V (1598-9) can at times seem like a thought experiment in the ways that the reigns of kings can end badly. Richard II begins amid accusations of treachery and murder, and concludes with the imprisonment of the increasingly ineffectual King Richard II; the usurpation of his throne by Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV; and Richard’s eventual murder at the hands of one of Henry IV’s ambitious nobles.
The Henry IV plays take us into a reign troubled by treason and uprising, haunted by the spectre of Richard’s murder and the usurpation, and presents us with a king terrified of the vision of the future offered by his legitimate heir, the reckless Prince Hal. And while Hal defies expectations and redeems himself when he assumes the throne and becomes Henry V, his reign is cut short by an early death and leaves England to suffer all the familiar woes of a country “ruled” by an infant king.
The Henriad then, in four plays, gives us a discussed abdication, a usurpation, a murder, a death with a legitimate but chancy heir, and an early death with an infant heir. If we add in the tragedies and others we can add several more murders, insanity, many deaths in battle, and a variety of other ends to assorted fictional and historical reigns.
But Shakespeare is not saying, with Richard:
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings; How some have been deposed; some slain in war, Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd; All murder'd: for within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits. (Richard II, 3.2.155-62)
No matter how much sympathy Shakespeare may have with the kings who undergo these sad fates—and he has great sympathy for Henry V’s early death after such greatness, and even for Richard II’s descent into maudlin irrelevance—he never loses sight of the costs that these turbulent reigns and the turbulent transitions between them exact on the populace.
We can begin, of course, with the costs of war, heartrendingly depicted in the deaths of the “boys and the luggage” in Henry V, and in the discussion of the effects of war on France at the end of the same play.[3] Similarly, Macbeth’s attempts to obtain and maintain power do not merely destroy him; they destroy the innocents around him. The slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children are only the most potent example of this collateral damage. The play as a whole gives us an image of a world turned upside-down by Macbeth’s bloody push for absolute power. Horses eat each other. Night turns to day. Falcons are killed by owls. Similarly, Hamlet’s Denmark is haunted by ghosts and filled with spies and poison. Lear’s England is threatened by French power and riven by internal dissent. Alvis is right to observe that all of that is very bad for the sovereigns who oversee these horrors. But how much worse must it be for the ordinary people who live within it?
Consider Ophelia, driven mad by the political machinations that surround her. Or Lear’s Fool. Or even Claudio and Juliet from Measure for Measure, who are nearly destroyed by the legal changes brought about by a change in power that seems to happen for no reason but the passing whim of a Duke. Or Falstaff’s soldiers whom he recruits only from the most ordinary Englishmen who are most desperate to stay at home and whom he calls “food for [gun]powder.” These are the people most threatened by the lust for absolute power. While Shakespeare’s plays do not generally make these people their primary focus, these are the people who get our sympathy.
Many things make the desire for absolute power terrifying. The corruption it creates in the soul of the holder of power is one. That absolute power is so fragile and that so much blood is shed when it splinters is another. That the blood is so often innocent blood is most horrifying of all.
[3.] The Duke of Burgundy's speech in Henry V, Act V, sc. II, 33-67:
“What rub or what impediment there is, Why that the naked, poor, and mangled Peace, Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births, Should not in this best garden of the world, Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage? Alas! she hath from France too long been chas’d, And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps, Corrupting in its own fertility. Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart, Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach’d, Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair, Put forth disorder’d twigs; her fallow leas The darnel, hemlock and rank fumitory Doth root upon, while that the coulter rusts That should deracinate such savagery; The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover, Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank, Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs, Losing both beauty and utility; And as our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges, Defective in their natures, grow to wildness, Even so our houses and ourselves and children Have lost, or do not learn for want of time, The sciences that should become our country, But grow like savages,—as soldiers will, That nothing do but meditate on blood,— To swearing and stern looks, diffus’d attire, And every thing that seems unnatural. Which to reduce into our former favour You are assembled; and my speech entreats That I may know the let why gentle Peace Should not expel these inconveniences, And bless us with her former qualities.”