Liberty Matters

Acton’s Axiom and Shakespeare: Two Further Plays for Consideration


We’ve applied Lord Acton’s axiom regarding the corruptive effects of possessing power to several of Shakespeare’s plays, noting instances of power corrupting in the case of Shakespeare’s Richard II and Richard III. Then we proposed two examples of characters who acquire additions to their power without becoming corrupt. Theseus of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has just come to authority in Athens, but seems not to suffer any moral diminishment thereby. Prospero may be the sole character who is shown to possess “absolute power.” He appears to become better in the course of the play, yet it may be that his improvement owes in part to his renouncing the unlimited power he has enjoyed by virtue of his magic. In my first contribution to this discussion I suggested we might be in position to discern Shakespeare’s view of the Acton proposition if we could understand why Prospero renounces absolute power to settle for much less. I don’t see that we’ve arrived at an answer to that question. Maybe David Urban was suggesting that Prospero renounces because he is a Christian, and Christians may be enjoined to trust in divine providence rather than rely upon their own resources. If so, then do we conclude Prospero did indeed corrupt himself by availing himself of whatever is that power he attains by his studies in what he himself calls “magic”?
I’m not convinced that we’ve come to the bottom of the question of Prospero, nor that we’ve shown Shakespeare refutes Machiavelli’s challenge to Acton, viz., one must strive for more and more power, because power is glory and that is man’s greatest happiness. Moreover, Machiavelli would say, “If promoting morality is incumbent upon human beings, as my detractors claim, then the more power one attains the better one is positioned to contend with men who are immoral.”
But suppose we extend our discussion to take up one play in which Shakespeare presents a celebrated instance of a quest for absolute power and a second play which depicts several characters who continually suffer diminishment of power to the point of its extinction in death. I’m referring to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the first subject and to King Lear for the second.
Caesar aspires to absolute power in the sense Acton employs the notion. Acton meant absolute in a political context wherein absolute means not unbounded simply—as might be the case with Prospero’s wielding his magic—but unchecked by any political institution. Another way of putting it would be to say absolute power means a condition in which there is no determination of public action other than the will of the ruler at any moment. Shakespeare has his Caesar express this condition in a single statement. Replying to a Roman senator who asks Caesar to state some cause why he refuses to attend the meeting of the Senate on the scheduled day, Caesar says: “The cause is in my will: I will not come./ That is enough to satisfy the Senate.” (2.2. 70-71) Every Roman would grasp that if Caesar can make the Senate accept that declaration as an adequate statement of “cause” (i.e., as in “due cause”) the republic will have been destroyed, and in its place will have been installed a single sovereign whose “will” henceforth must have the authority previously ascribed only to law (as in “rule of law”). Because the republic’s reason for being was precisely to prevent anyone’s being entitled to say, “The cause is in my will,” and have that satisfy any self-respecting republican Roman, least of all Rome’s Senate.
Republican government rests upon the conviction that men are to be regulated by general laws. Then the form of republican government is so designed as to insure that a coordination of discrete interests will be consulted before any proposal achieves the status of law. That, in turn, was secured in Rome by a constitution that provided against any person, or single class or group interest, enjoying such authority as to be able to have its will unimpeded. Hence, the Senate upon deliberation issued not laws but recommendations which would become law only if approved by the people in their various popular assemblies. In executing and adjudicating law, elected officials brought to bear their intelligence (as well as their interests) in applying the law. On the basis of this play one might suspect Shakespeare holds such republican institutions to be the appropriate means to providing against the corruptive effects of power. So a regime such as that Caesar craves would be corrupted in the proper sense of the word: i.e., the form would undergo change from that of a mixed regime (as Aristotle would put it, and Polybius did) to some version of autocracy.
Does that mean Shakespeare has shown Caesar to have become personally or morally corrupt?  Not necessarily. Would not that question depend upon one’s judging whether the Roman senatorial class together with the common people are shown no longer to possess sufficient political virtue to sustain a republic? Is it clear that Caesar does not intend such justice as is available given Rome’s corrupted conditions?
King Lear depicts a reapportionment of power. Absolute power invested in a single monarch is to be replaced with a three-part divided sovereignty, or, more precisely, by three separate nations. Lear’s intended division is not the sort of division accomplished in the Roman republic and that resulted in sharing political authority. Instead, Lear intended three separate monarchies ruled by the husbands of Lear’s three daughters, with the old king still retaining some sort of unspecified vestigial royal status. This, Lear’s initial plan, gives way to a two-part division in consequence of Lear’s anger against the daughter he had hitherto favored. What follows is good for no one. The realm suffers corruption of the general good in warfare between the two new sovereigns and between them and France. All the principal characters die, except Edgar. Characters presented unsympathetically are further corrupted in their newly powerful condition. Characters flawed but sympathetically portrayed seem each and all to become morally improved by their sufferings. One of these, Edgar, gains power, perhaps even that monarchical sovereignty over all of England possessed by King Lear at the outset. Edgar seems to improve morally and that partly in consequence of his choice to descend almost to ground zero with regard to power as ordinarily understood. Do we have here a pattern recognized in other plays: dilution or neglect of power brings ruin to a state and its people, but bereft of powers once enjoyed, the good become morally better?
Wickedness would prevail (in the person of Edmund) at the end of the play were it not that a husband (Albany) of one of the selfish sisters has preserved sufficient authority to have the allied army at his command, or had not a mere servant slain the rival Duke of Cornwall, and had not Edgar the bodily strength to vanquish Edmund in a trial by judicial combat. Thus Edgar comes to rule an apparently reunified England. Desire for increase of power corrupts those inclined to evil by their natures, whereas loss of power improves Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia, Kent, the Fool(?), and Edgar. But does the all-but-universal destruction indicate that the sole joy befalling the good personages is the friendship of the good? Do we arrive at the net conclusion that power is insufficient to assure personal happiness or happiness for the well-being of a nation, but that some power in the right hands on the right occasion is indispensable?