Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A friend a friend will know

I would like guys in their youth to adopt William Shakespeare as a matter of ordinary weekly refreshment. There will come a time when less and less will make sense, or even be observed unless there is that frame of reference; but that's only for judgment's sake. For engagement's sake there could be few truer conduits between the minds of friends than in his plays. Plato is superb for conjecture; Virgil is much more like his sonnets. His plays portray lives in layers, beyond the circumstantial, of life as it is certain to be lived again. And when they turn to each other I want them to have seen those wafers in the kaleidoscope which turn with every thought they will exchange.

It's possible to lose a friend and it's possible to recall a friend by other means; but I have never lost a friend, in the sense of being unable to say I knew him any longer, who has sat with me to speak of William Shakespeare. 

I did not invent this expedient, hedging my bets at the time; but now I can look through decades and bright lights, and bring right here to the ground beside me, the essence of these friends in conversations he convened between us.

Yet with everyone, Shakespeare invigorates engagements, in all their permutations, which we deserve to understand in feeling at the time, and never lose.

Meter and syntax are his bones, words and words and words for senses, endings and beginnings shifting every gesture of thought; lines of supple texture every time we touch them, shape and substance certain in his grasp, yet fluid and prolific, always saying there'll be more. And there will be, whenever one goes back. Our language gave us a fortune.

I don't know if the President of the United States is reading Richard II now. At the close of Act III, a Gardener takes the stage and gives instructions to assistants, which have lain on that page for more than 400 years, for every student of a State to know by heart, placed there as plain as day for the young. Such interventions by spontaneous innocents in Shakespeare are like choral odes, laid out for no dramatic gain but for moral assessment. Richard has been inadequate in his part, and several things this President is not, but one thing that he is. Complaisant; pathetically so, toward his usurpers.

Go, bind thou up young dangling apricocks,
which like unruly children make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight,
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employed, I will go root away
The noisome weeds which without profit suck
The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers.

Why should we, in the compass of a pale,
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok'd up,
Her fruit-trees all unprun'd, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

Hold thy peace 
.. O what pity is it,
That he had not so trimm'd and dress'd his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself; 
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have liv'd to bear, and he to taste 
Their fruits of duty ..Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours 
hath quite thrown down.

A sordid sight is not a happy one to blog, a sorry view is not our favourite way of bringing something that exists into being, so that it may be seen. Very few of the blogs I admire permit themselves to do this; and their resolution to present some beauty and to eschew advice is exemplary. I offer no excuse, and in fact a mild apology. As is obvious, this is a page of occasional advocacy, and it has a constituency. We know the beautiful and we know the good, but they are also something else: an inheritance to be looked after from time to time, even for us to affirm to each other.

  Just sayin'.

William Shakespeare
King Richard II
  Act III, iv
Peter Ure, editor
The Arden Edition of the Works
  of William Shakespeare
Richard Proudfoot, general editor
Methuen, 1955©


  1. That will rate as a memory, where I come from, BL.

  2. Delightful, will read again later

  3. And you told me something important that I did not know clearly enough. Thank you

  4. Dear L, I hope that whatever the antecedent is for the 2nd note does not contradict the 1st! :) Thank you for your notes.

    As you would expect and possibly already know, the play 'positions' its protagonist with exceptionally integrated layers of specific historical pertinence and autonomous psychological cohesiveness. This almost heartbreakingly elegant feat is one to relish as we might, or not; the play is coherent enough, at any depth of 'swipe' across its textual surface.

    But at present, it has resonances for the London riots as well as for the revanchist resistance in the US known as the "Tea Party." The setting of Richard's predicament is a departure from ancient bonds of mutual obligation between feeholders in land and its tenants, causing a rupture of trust necessary to sustain the feudal order. This is not at all remote from the Cameron government's problems with its budget, and I think is much more significant than the concentration of violent discontent in the "immigrant" communities.

    In America, similarly, while every observer has commented on a supposed subtext of racism in the Tea Party's hideous ad hominem attacks on the President, it is only unfortunate that these vile components of indignation obscure the economic anxieties in the broader middle classes which now daily expose the President's passivity and inevitably define it as decadent and indolent. This quite negligent "gift" of the President, of the high ground of resolve and rigorous clarity of policy, to a cut-throat cabal of partisans, has borne and continues to bear fruit among his supporters and independents, as a conviction that he wishes he were doing something else for a living. This allows his reticence to acquire that stamp of tyranny which we used to associate with a President named Herbert Hoover, which was an impolite impression but an irreversible one.

    No advisor of the President is likely to show him the play's own prescription for his revival. It is to depict the outsourcing of popular control of policy (which is what "government" means), by two generations of Bushes and an intervening nullity of opposition, to corporate and religious interests which absolutely shredded, while plundering, the social compact between the citizen and the State. Everyone remarks on this as "shrinking government." It is anything but, as our radical Congress has made plain. It is placing government out of the reach of the citizen - the barons, in the play, who amount to the same thing as "the citizen" in a post-feudal society. It's not so difficult to tell the people what they virtually already know, and to encourage them to elect their natural representatives, against their terrorists.

  5. Read to enjoy:) I was in one of my "hurries".

    If one has an external enemy, one does not pay the same amount of attention to what is going on at home ...

  6. Dear L, I'm happy if there were something here for you to enjoy; it is reciprocal!

    Your further comment identifies one of the reliances of all tyrannies, except those of no democratic process of any effect, such as Myanmar and most of the western hemisphere.