Liberty Matters

Power, Character, and Disorder

I’ll respond to all three of these thoughtful commentaries on my attempt to apply Lord Acton’s celebrated axiom to Shakespeare. But I’ll not respond to everything the three have said, but only to what I think may advance the question: what does Shakespeare understand regarding the effects of exercising power.
First, as Zuckert points out for good or for ill, the exercise of power is necessary to reveal character. I’ll call this (after Zuckert) the Creonic principle. In accord with that principle Theseus, most clearly, and Prospero less clearly, improve in their exercise of power. So, Shakespeare disagrees with Acton if Acton’s principle were taken to mean access to power simply (=always) corrupts. Acton, however, said it “tends” to do so. He knew the tendency could be counteracted, as have I suppose all who inveigh against power unchecked. Besides God, perhaps, as Aristotle says, the best mode of rule would be that of a good and wise man without any hindrance whatsoever.[31] (Not even rule of law? Yes.) Does Plato’s Socrates disagree with Aristotle, since he says he (sometimes) thinks himself monstrous?[32] If he only means in dreams or some such libidinal recess from goodness, no problem; we’ll risk that. But Prospero is Shakespeare’s best test case. I don’t know if he feels passion at the crisis when he says he must “still his beating mind” (The Tempest, Act IV, sc.I, 163) or whether this is just another demonstration he thinks needed to further the education of Ferdinand. Anyway, the problem here is not his counter-example of becoming better by gaining (?) power in the insular condition. The mystery lies in determining whether with renunciation of magical power he becomes better or worse. Actually Prospero gains political power (restored Dukedom) but becomes thereby not less but more dependent upon the will of others.
I think Machiavelli would say of us four, and maybe of Aristotle as well, “Your mouths are full of milk. The four of you attempt to evade the question of Shakespeare’s own tutelage from (not against) my wise precepts. To use Shakespeare to refute me, I maintain, you would be obliged, first, to show a full-blooded pupil of mine, not the Macbeth of half-measures and effeminate conscience, nor the Richard Crookback who begins to lose his self-command the moment he ascends the throne.”  He would add: “Don’t worry about corruption if by that you mean merely moral corruption. But you should take care not to allow your mastery to corrupt, self-mastery as well as command over others. And, in any event, don’t worry regarding your access to absolute power because neither you nor anyone will ever have it. A man need worry only that he may lack power sufficient to achieve and keep whatever he desires.”
Wouldn’t Machiavelli’s objection throw us back to the question with which Glaucon-Adeimantus challenge Socrates in The Republic: why be just, as distinct from being just only to the extent that to appear so enhances one’s power? Wisdom is prudence, and prudence consists in modifying principle to suit circumstances. But is it not necessary so to modify principles held to be (morally) good if the application of the good policy undermines one’s power?
Skwire is right to point out that Shakespeare shows not so much that self-corruption suffered by rulers is the consequence of their acquiring power, but rather that the more baneful result is harm dealt the (relatively) innocent. Hence we should be aware that the corruption of which Acton speaks is in Shakespeare’s plays corruption of the state itself. Does this not teach us that we should do whatever is possible to make power not less potent but more responsible? But have I just made a distinction without a difference? Power made responsible is power diminished. So the question becomes how to confer such power as rulers need to make citizens restrain their desire to have power without responsibility, yet confer it in such manner that those who govern others govern themselves as well. Then, doesn’t that mean there must be something in the constitution of the realm that can hold the king accountable? Shakespeare’s British history plays speak frequently enough of a “Parliament ” for us to know he wants us to be aware of its existence.[33] But Shakespeare never depicts this legislative body in action. We may wonder why he does not. And the pertinent question for Acton would be whether Shakespeare indicates this legislative body has any authority—or does Shakespeare imagine it to be merely advisory. This provokes the question of whether Shakespeare has made us mindful of any institution that can make the king accountable?
Skwire is also right to make us aware that Shakespeare’s England suffers as much from instability as from overweening kings. To my mind the besetting weakness of Shakespeare’s England is that the monarch lacks a standing army. This insufficiency of power is most obvious in Richard II where, faced with one rebellion in Ireland and another at home, the king finds himself reduced to begging armed assistance from one of his nobles in order to confront another. Is it then the case that on the basis of our reading of the plays we should attribute to diminishment of central power all the civil disorders the playwright has depicted?  Must we therefore almost reverse Acton and conclude that diminishing power corrupts the state and that diminishment approaching an absolute degree corrupts so thoroughly that civil society disintegrates? Isn’t this most apparent in the four plays depicting the reign of Henry VI and concluding with Richard III? Yet, so to conclude may go too far, since I should not suppose Acton fails to realize that too little power causes difficulties comparable to an excess thereof.
David Urban notes the morally salutary effects of losing power in the case of Richard II and of voluntarily renouncing power in the case of Prospero. He stresses the connection between regeneration and Christian piety he thinks displayed by several characters in The Tempest, the repentant political enemies of Prospero, Caliban, and Prospero himself. I agree that the question of what authority Shakespeare attributes to Christian teaching must be addressed and that Prospero’s rejecting vengeance and forgiving those who have wronged him argue for a morality distinctly Christian. Two problems occur to me. First, Prospero’s forgiveness relies on provisions he has arranged—restoration of his ducal powers now supported by marital alliance with the king of Naples. Second, if he professes Christian belief Prospero seems ambiguous in his practice. He does not pray. As for doctrine, he attributes his relenting to “reason” rather than to grace. And he is a mortalist: “our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest, Act IV, sc. 1, 157). True, when speaking as the play’s Epilogue he refers to the Lord’s prayer in asking plaudits from the playgoers. (The Tempest, Epilogue, 16). There are many indications throughout the plays that Shakespeare is aware he writes for Christians. In our discussion we can profitably pursue the issue of Shakespeare and Christian doctrine since that matter bears upon our inquiry into what may be the limits upon absolute power. 
Urban has pertinent comments on Henry V that we might take up in an approach to the question just mentioned. The Chorus of the play commends Henry Monmouth as “the mirror of all Christian kings.” (Henry V, Act II, Chorus, 6). Would it be worthwhile to consider what would be required of such a king and to examine the thought and policies of Henry V with a view to discovering whether Shakespeare himself shares the enthusiasm of his Chorus? This would also bear upon the issue raised by Zuckert vis-à-vis the playwright’s affiliations with political philosophers. How would one go about considering the claim that Shakespeare can best be understood from an Aristotelian perspective? Then we have not spoken of Hobbes. But are there not grounds for thinking that Shakespeare’s plays keep audiences aware of what Hobbes will describe as a “state of nature” ever impending? I mean a condition in which every man is at war with every other man.[34] Accordingly, I would propose sharpening our leading question by assuming Acton’s cautionary regarding absolute power to be borne out by some of the plays. But now at issue is what theological-moral-political precepts afford guidance in seeking to make power responsible?
[31.] Aristotle on the good and wise ruler, see The Politics, Book III </titles/579#Aristotle_0033-01_467> in The Politics of Aristotle, trans. into English with introduction, marginal analysis, essays, notes and indices by B. Jowett. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1885. 2 vols. Vol. 1.
[32.] In "Gorgias" Polus calls Soicrates "monstrous". See, The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892). </titles/766#lf0131-02_head_026>.
[33.] In King Henry VI Part III see the exchange between the King and Exeter on using force against Parliament:
K. Hen.: Be patient, gentle Earl of Westmoreland.Clif:. Patience is for poltroons, such as he: He durst not sit there had your father liv’d. My gracious lord, here in the parliament Let us assail the family of York.North.: Well hast thou spoken, cousin: be it so.K. Hen.: Ah! know you not the city favours them, And they have troops of soldiers at their beck?Exe.: But when the duke is slain they’ll quickly fly.K. Hen.: Far be the thought of this from Henry’s heart, To make a shambles of the parliament-house! Cousin of Exeter, frowns, words, and threats, Shall be the war that Henry means to use.[Act I, sc.I, 61-73]
[34.] Thomas Hobbes on “the condition of a War of every man against every man”, in Hobbes’s Leviathan reprinted from the edition of 1651 with an Essay by the Late W.G. Pogson Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909). CHAP. XIX.: Of the severall Kinds of Common-wealth by Institution, and of Succession to the Soveraigne Power. </titles/869#Hobbes_0161_514>.