Think of this familiar toy as Jan Kott‘s Great Mechanism of History.
With one small difference: imagine that once the cute penguins reach the top – kingship – the next step is not an exhilarating slide but more of a plunge onto the razor-sharp rocks of tragedy. They are immediately replaced by the next penguin (King Penguin? Emperor Penguin?) on his or her own journey to bloody immolation and little more than the proverbial footnote in the history book, if they’re lucky …
‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ [a]
And, as Macbeth asks in rapt horror when confronted with Banquo’s future descendants, all wearing crowns:
What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?
Kott’s short, nihilistic answer is, simply, ‘Yes’.
I think I arrived at this week’s quotation via some Y12 marking on ‘Edward II‘ and Maud. I’d supplied three questions for the choice of six that comprised the class’s Mock, and another English teacher included an absolute bastard of a question based on Marx‘s assertion that history repeats itself:
‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. [b]
Personally, I would have run a mile from the question, in the context of these texts. As Maud’s narrator says, ‘there are fatter game on the moor‘. Nevertheless, I had one student (out of two classes) who was up for the challenge and deserves maximum respect, even if his eventual self-assessment ‘I think I bit off more than I could chew with the question‘ was entirely accurate. I salute you, Charlie!
This cycle, this inability to learn from previous mistakes (which I KNOW Charlie will break), is one that Kott explores at length in discussing the Great Mechanism. It applies to leadership, nowadays, as much as to the historical monarchy – fitting for a book titled ‘Shakespeare Our Contemporary‘. These ideas, like the Wars of the Roses, reach their culmination in Kott’s treatment with Richard III; as this is my Y12 class’s next text (woooooooohoooo!), I offer you a small critical nugget, people.
Richard III compares himself to Machiavelli and is a real Prince. He is, at any rate, a prince who has read ‘The Prince’. Politics is to him a purely practical affair, an art, with the acquisition of power as its aim. Politics is amoral, like the art of bridge contruction, or the practice of fencing. Human passions, and men themselves, are clay which can be shaped by hand. […] Here for the first time Shakespeare has shown the human face of the Grand Mechanism. A terrifying face, in its ugliness and the cruel grimace of its lips. But also a fascinating face.
Which leads further down the rabbit hole to Machiavelli‘s The Prince, which I recently reviewed.
My advice to my classes, to all A Level Lit students, actually, is about intertexuality. This is a chronically underestimated subject in terms of its difficulty, or at least the amount of additional reading that the most successful students do. The studied texts lie in a web of other books, plays, poems, essays, and so on: if you’re sceptical, take a look at the breadth of the tags I’ve used on this ‘single-author’ blog over the past two years.
Exploring these intertextual links will enrich your ideas, arguments, essays – and eventually, your marks …
[a] all play quotations taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[b] Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, summary available here
[c] Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (trans. Boleslaw Taborksi), (WW Norton & Co: New York, 1974)