Claiming ‘Shakespeare was this or that’, or worse, ‘Shakespeare did not write the plays’, does NOT entitle you to a mic-drop. It just shows your intellectual bankruptcy …
I’ve written elsewhere about the Rally of Revenge – about my unease that once you abandon all faith in ‘due process‘ or ‘justice‘ (either earthly or divine); once you understand that inequality is endemic, you have nothing left to lose – if you are already losing – so keep raising the stakes until someone has to leave the game. If it’s uncomfortable, perhaps it’s also sometimes necessary, to affect change of a fundamentally broken system. You might not see the benefits yourself. Hey, if you have to leave the game, then so be it: losing can become preferable to playing along, eventually.
There are always other games, other paths, whilst we are still alive – experience has taught me that, even if Shakespeare hasn’t.
And that’s where I find myself, professionally, this weekend. Approaching change, but ready for it, and maybe, in some ways, relieved that an unhappy stasis has broken. There are always other games.
There is a third way – for revenge – I’ve not written about before. The poet George Herbert(1593-1633) suggested that:
Living well is the best revenge.
And I’ll embrace and adapt that, in a ‘standing on the shoulders of giants‘ sense.
Living well equals happiness. LAUGHTER is the best revenge.
Today, I intend to laugh at someone. Long, and hard.
(subtitled, far too obviously for the UK football fans amongst us, ‘who ate all the pies?’)
I warned you! I WARNED YOU! Did I warn you?
Yes, I did. And so did Francis Bacon. And Jonathan Bate. And Fredson Bowers. We all said that revenge was likely to spiral out of control, because once you lose your faith in the law, and in divine justice too, all bets are off. And because every stroke in the ‘rally of revenge‘ is that much harder, has that much more spin on it than the last. Let’s mix our metaphors again: in this particular poker game, someone, eventually, is going to see your stake and raise you with everything they’ve got, not caring any more whether they win or lose. The chips, and what they represent, are suddenly and utterly unimportant …
Secular authorities had (and still have) every investment in discouraging revenge. If citizens perceive that the law no longer serves them, then we get the kind of situation that Francis Bacon famously warned of:
‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’
And this is a point that Jonathan Bate develops, quoting Fredson Bowers:
Private action undermines the authority of the state:Elizabethan law felt itself capable of meting out justice to murderers, and therefore punished an avenger who took justice into his own hands just as heavily as the original murderer.The authorities, conscious of the Elizabethan inheritance of private justice from earlier ages, recognised that their own times still held the possibilities of serious turmoil; and the were determined that private revenge should not unleash a general disrespect for law.
Act IV however adds the dimension of the breakdown of DIVINE justice to the individual’s decision to subvert the legal process.
‘To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub’ (HAMLET: III.i.64)
Titus Andronicus: Act II
What tragedy would be complete without some element of the supernatural, as I have already intimated? This dreadful (in the sense of being full of dread, NOT poor quality) act begins with that classic Shakespearean trope, the bad night’s sleep:
‘I have been troubled in my sleep this night.’ (TITUS: II.i.9)
And Titus has every reason to be subconsciously troubled: although he begins the act quite enthusiastically:
‘The hunt is up’ (II.i.1)
He cannot imagine who the ‘dainty doe’ (DEMETRIUS: II.i. 26) might actually be ..
My experience of Shakespeare’s Rome is the city where Cinna the Poet is torn apart by the mob for his ‘bad verses’ (Julius Caesar, III.iii), and the antagonistic opening to Coriolanus. So, what first struck me as the play opened was just how thin the veneer of civilisation proved to be.