Thursday, September 04, 2008

Family Values ...

The fun and games going on over the other side of the pond with regard to illegitimate babies, women in politics and ‘redneckidness’ might seem to be far removed from Shakespeare and Elizabethan Theatre, but I’m not so sure.

One of those constant metaphors (in western society at least) seems to be to view the body politic as a family. There is the head of the family, the family itself and, in earlier times at least, the servants. The very powerful combination of man and wife in harmony, with children growing under their protection, operating within a sometimes hostile world is a very strong idea – just look at the galvanizing effect the ‘Republican ticket’ has had.

Shakespeare starts his first History play (The First Part of the Contention) with this image.

Henry is united with Margaret and they go off to unite with the state in her coronation. But there is a degree of family disharmony – the elder statesman, Gloucester is not happy with the settlement – this is not a marriage of equals and too much has been spent – there is a danger to the stability of the family – his ‘uncle’ argues and goes behind his back, others do the same … just as in any normal family. Instead of looking to the family, each (perhaps with the exception of Gloucester) is looking to himself.

It is the job of the head of the family (and his wife) to control this natural sibling rivalry – and it is the responsibility of the children to follow the rules of the family … to the Elizabethan, this was a God-given responsibility: I suspect, to a number of dwellers across the seas, the same would apply.

We are so used these ideas we forget the element which was so exciting to the Elizabethan was the changing role of the woman in all this.

As I pointed out in an earlier post the significant role of the junction of man and wife as a religious, moral and ideal unit was a consequence of Protestantism and Shakespeare’s promotion of this ideal could be considered almost revolutionary.

In his two previous plays he dealt with the issues directly in terms of comedy – of male uniting with female.

Here, in the first of a new genre of play for the writer, he deals with a more abstract, almost philosophical conception – the power of an ordered group over the disorder of chaos – the need for a natural balance with people fulfilling their roles, accepting both their strength and limitations. The play which follows from the union of Henry and Margaret is in a direct line to the speech of Katherine at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

But what we get here is not Petruccio and Katherine’s story – it is that of the Widow and Hortensio, or of Bianca and Lucentio. The necessary submission for unity is not going to be made.

I think it is very telling that the first very public, very political scene is followed by the private domestic scene between Gloucester and ‘Nell’, his wife, the ‘Duchess’.

Central at this point is Gloucester – he is the only one in the previous scene who seems to have the needs of ‘King and Country’ foremost in his mind – he is rebelled against by everyone, behind his back … and when he is at home, his wife preaches rebellion and treachery – and (significantly) goes behind his back and disobeys his orders – for her own benefit rather than the countries or even her family.

But Shakespeare isn’t only drawing a parallel here, he pushes it one stage further – it involves consorting with the powers of evil, with a going against God and consulting the devil and his subordinates … and these actions are linked to a supposed holy man (the Cardinal Uncle) and others of the political commonweal.

Rebellion in the family, rebellion in the state and rebellion of the soul against the heavenly ordained.

The redneck Cade and his followers are merely and extension – the wild consequence of a breakdown in the values enshrined in the family.

What is playing out in the US of A at the moment is an echo of this first history play – and is an exploration in real life of the issues Shakespeare explored (based quite closely on real life) several centuries ago.

1 comment:

Crack Whore said...

I highly recommend Lakoff's short read, "Don't Think of an Elephant!"

It discusses how family values and structures are basically the deciding factor/crux of how people vote. :)