Friday, January 8, 2010

The butcher's boy ...

No, not he who occupies so much of today's popular prints, the young:
Kirk McCambley, now 21, [who] owns a cafe in south Belfast and the visitors' centre which houses the cafe was built by the council on which Mrs Robinson sits.
The one in Malcolm's mind was young Will, of Stratford. He also had a relationship with an older woman.

Neither Will nor his older wife ever entered elective politics. Will's dad, John Shakespeare, had been a big wheel in Stratford town affairs: rising from Ale-Taster, through the civic ranks, to become the town High Bailiff. Between small town Warwickshire and Westminster Hall, it's only a matter of scale. Perhaps that was from whence came the son's appreciation of the nature of power and honour -- and since John Shakespeare went bankrupt, and sailed too close to the tax laws, an awareness of the consequences.

Once Malcolm had posted his previous effort, he found himself, third glass in hand, muttering Monmouth Hal's reflection on power.

Act IV of Henry V is a quite astonishing achievement. The King acquires a cloak and wanders through the English camp, the night before Agincourt, successively encountering:
  • old Sir Thomas Erpingham;
  • My name is Pistol call'd;
  • a conversation between Gower, the stage Englishman, and Fluellen: There is much care and valour in this Welshman;
  • the pensive common soldiers, Bates and Williams, perturbed about the future of their souls, and debating war-guilt.
Finally, Henry is alone. We then have a superb reflection on the experience of absolute power, written by one who never knew it:
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
What are the rewards of this absolute power?
What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
Henry recognises the limits of his power, and the psychological cost of exercising it. It is one of the most potent poetic flights of Will, the butcher of Stratford's son:
I am a king that find thee, and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave:
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
In all, one sentence: twenty four lines; 185 words in a rising crescendo. The ghost of Kit Marlowe, the anarch, the machiavel, the atheist, left his imprint here.

Put yourself at Bankside, the Globe Theatre, that Spring of 1599. The great tragedian, Richard Burbage, delivers the lines. There is war in Ireland. The body politic is the monarch. The long, largely peaceful and prosperous reign of Elizabeth I is clearly moving to its inevitable end. What happens next? Her health and authority are what kept us all safe. Can we afford any indecision in one so great?

Or would we be better ...

... with a philosopher king? To which ideal, and whose innate inadequacies, Will of Stratford would return repeatedly in the next few years.


Of the British leaders of Malcolm's life, who would appreciate this literate perspective?

Churchill's Harrovian days would have beaten it into him: he had the mental agility to learn appreciation of its implications (and the Burbage rhythms) later. Macmillan was a delightfully well-read man. On the other side of the hedge, later, the best Prime Minister Britain (and the Labour Party) never had -- Major Healey -- would have been well capable. Probably, too, his antithesis, Tony Benn.

And who else? Sphere: Related Content

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