Plots and spies, literature and censorship, in the times of Elizabeth I and James

Gunpowder and Elizabeth I’s spies

Two series have been running on BBC television – one about the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ (London, 1605) and the events leading up to it, and the other about Queen Elizabeth’s ministers’ extensive spy network.

It makes me think of the great number of English language poets and dramatists active at the time – Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  They had to live through these times.   They depended on their writing for a living.

The writings of the time that have come down to us do not mention (a) the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1587) or the ‘Spanish Armada’ (1588) or the Gunpowder Plot.

I suspect that writers censored themselves.  There was also Government censorship.  Veiled references to current events can be found in the works.

The drunken porter in Macbeth mentions “equivocation”, which more or less amounts to lying, for the sake of the cause one believes in.

The anonymous Edward III refers to the loss at sea of a French fleet that was designed for an invasion of England.  Both King John and the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John refer to the loss of a back-up French fleet.  Spain was the main enemy of England at the time they were written, so perhaps a mention of France was safe.

The anonymous plays, Sir Thomas More and The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, which deal with riots and insurrection, respectively, suffered censorship.  Like Edward III, they disappeared from view (and from the repertoire) for centuries.  Now it is safe to pay them attention and to try them out occasionally on the stage.

Is civil order something we rather take for granted nowadays?

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Quests and questions in medieval epics: Peredur, Perceval, Parzival; Gwalchmai, Gauvain, Gawan

1 Below is a rough-and-ready table, which shows parallels and differences between the Welsh medieval tale, Peredur, the late 11th century epic by Chrétien de Troyes in French, and the German epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach (circa 1200).  Much is left out, eg regarding the respective styles of the writers.  (Fuller summaries can be found elsewhere.)

Peredur Perceval Parzival (with book nos)
The story of P’s father.  1 & 2
P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court.  3
P meets tent maiden*. P meets tent maiden. P meets Jeschute.  3
Gwenhwyfar* insulted. Guinièvre insulted. Ginover splashed by kt.
P with uncle 1. P with Gornemant. P with Gurnemanz.  3
P + Condwiramurs.  4
With Uncle 2 Grail Castle Grail Castle  5
Bloody spear and head* King and Grail etc Anfortas and Grail etc  5
P asks no questions. P asks no questions. P asks no questions.  5
Meets foster-sister. Meets cousin. Meets Sigune  5
P in love. P loves Blanchefleur.
P defeats jealous knight. P defeats jealous knight. P defeats Orilus.  5
P  with Witches.
P lost in thought of maiden. P lost in thought about B. P lost in thought of C.  6
Angharad and P.
The Empress* and P.
———— ———— ———–
Ugly maiden reproves P.** Ugly maiden reproves P. Cundrie denounces P.  6
Gwalchmai’s adventure. Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s adventures – 7, 8
P with hermit. P with hermit uncle. P with Trevrizent.  9
P kills Witches***.
Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s exploits  10-13
Gawan et al wed.  14
P and half-brother.   15
P back with Cond.  15
P poses the Question.  16
Anfortas healed.  16
P > King , Cond > Queen.  16

*symbols of sovereignty?

**Should the challenge be about neglecting his wife, or neglecting revenge, or indeed both?

***Peredur achieves revenge for the harm done to his family.

2 The anonymous Peredur is written in prose and is very short, compared with the others.  Perceval has over 9,000 lines of verse.  Parzival is much longer, with over 24,000 lines.  It can be safely said that Parzival elaborates upon (and completes) Perceval, Wolfram’s only, or chief, source.  It can be proposed that Perceval expands upon Peredur or upon a common source, but that the French version may have influenced the Welsh manuscripts that have come down to us, especially in the latter part (cf the Question Test).

3 Perceval is unfinished.  There are medieval French language continuations, not discussed here.  Peredur displays up to three endings!  In other words, while the story is easy to follow at the outset, it is confused and confusing later on.  The ending given by the destruction of the Witches of Caer Loyw provides a fitting ending, if one assumes that the tale is fundamentally about revenge and the gaining of sovereignty over the tribe or clan.  Reconciliation with the hero’s wife (which one?) would parallel what happens in the similar and contemporary Geraint and Owain (Iarlles y Ffynnon).

4 About half of Peredur is devoted to the adventures of Gauvain.  The proportions are not so tilted in Parzival, but six books are allocated to Gawan, out of the sixteen.

5 Significant wounds in the Parzival story relate to intimate areas.  There is a strong hint that Anfortas has been wounded in the genitals, because of his illicit love affair, outside the Grail Order.  Clinschor the enchanter has been castrated, because of his adultery.  (I was expecting him to appear in person in the story, but he doesn’t.)

6 It is a characteristic of Parzival that all the participants are related – either by blood or (in the course of the narrative) by marriage.  Wolfram marries off all the principal unmarried characters.  (See, for example, Book 14.)  This is not a feature of the other versions.

7 Wolfram is very forgiving of characters that have done wrong.  He has good words to say about Keie, Orilus and Clamidê (oppressor of Condwirmarus).

8 On reading Peredur, one has no sense of an audience – with Perceval and Parzival one does.  Chrétien and Wolfram address their listeners (the latter, frequently), in asides.  Wolfram includes many references to his contemporaries, to places and to current events.

9 At one end of a spectrum, Peredur reflects old Celtic mythology, with its magic and shape-shifters.  At the other end, Wolfram creates his own mythology, loosely based upon the Templars: the Grail Order represents and serves the dual values and principles of Christianity and chivalry.  Clinschor’s powers of enchantment are portrayed in Parzival, but (to my mind) they are not well worked out.  There is no confrontation between Gawan and Clinschor, only the former’s survival of the assaults associated with the perilous bed (Book 11).  (Compare Perceval, lines 7676-7884.)

10 I haven’t mentioned the Grail!  The concept is adumbrated in Perceval and expanded upon, on a grand scale, by Wolfram.  It does not appear in Peredur, as is plainly evident.

11 Parzival can be regarded as a “bildungsroman” – the story of the education and development of the hero to full maturity and his taking on of adult responsibilities.

12 Finally, a personal opinion: I do not think it is fair that any of the main protagonists should be blamed for not asking the great question concerning the Grail (or its Welsh equivalent, the bloody severed head).  The advantage of this (non-)event is that it ensures the continuation of the story and provides the hero with obstacles to overcome and chances to prove himself.

All three versions are a “good read” – in translation.  The original medieval texts require notes and glossaries to be understood.

Principal books consulted

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales

Goetinck, G W (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawg, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth (Middlesex): Penguin

Hertz, W and Hofstaetter, W (1969), Parzival: eine Auswahl, Stuttgart: Reclam

Jones, G and Jones, T (1949), The Mabinogion, London: Dent (Everyman)

Jones, R M (Bobi) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant: Iarlles y Ffynnon, Peredur, Geraint, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Mustard, H M and Passage, C E (1961), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, New York NY: Random House (Vintage)

Owen, D D R (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walsh, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, London: Oxford University Press

a worm’s eye view of Quakers in Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering 2017

 

First, some vignettes.

In the room set aside for crafts, near the YMG information desk and the bookshop, I used to find six or seven women, sitting round a large table piled high with balls of wool of many colours, knitting squares to be sewn together to make blankets for refugees, and softly chatting.  In their quiet work they embodied Quakerism for me.

For my accommodation, I chose to stay among strangers – strangers who quickly became friends.  There were six of us on our floor, four from Pendle Hill Area Meeting, Daniele, a young Italian from Suffolk, and me.  The Pendle Hill four catered for themselves, whereas Daniele and I took meals with hundreds of other Friends, half-board; but the way was open for all of us to get to know each other.

One of the delights of Yearly Meeting is the opportunity to meet old friends and to make new ones.  One of the aims indeed is to build a community.  Although it is not possible to get to know everyone, it is vital to sit with people you don’t know and to make an approach – and hence to learn new things.  In this regard (community building), I think that YMG was a success.

The University of Warwick (the host site) is not situated in Warwick but at the very edge of the City of Coventry.  It is a good location for a large gathering – flattish, fairly compact, and modern (so, fairly accessible for Friends who are frail).  The City of Coventry itself forms quite a contrast.  It is well worth a visit.  It presents a mixture of buildings from various ages – and notably several medieval buildings, which survived the World War Two bombing.  The Friends Meeting House, simple and practical, dates from 1953.  Visiting Friends received a warm welcome (with tea and cake).  I visited the two cathedrals, medieval and modern, for the first time.  In the Chapel of Unity, I found a copy of the booklet that lays out the British Christian Response to the Palestine Kairos document: I found the name of my wife Jane among the signatories, and I felt a thrill of pride.

There were many Quaker visitors from around the world, and guests from other Faith traditions, who appeared very happy to be present and to be able to contribute to non-business sessions.

Indeed, the choice of what one might loosely call “spiritual nurture” sessions (or workshops) was vast, and one had to choose carefully and pace oneself.

I enjoyed the Retreat Lecture, given by my Friend Bronwen Gray, who vividly conveyed the connections between our faith and the principles of good mental health care (seeing that of God in all).  I enjoyed too the lecture by Gethin Evans on the life and work of printer and publisher John Edward Southall (1855 – 1928), who came from Leominster but moved to Newport and vigorously promoted both Quakerism and the Welsh language. (Repeated from the lecture Gethin gave at the 2016 National Eisteddfod.)

Lectures were given in front of much larger audiences: first, the Swarthmore Lecture, by Catherine West MP, and secondly, the Salter Lecture, by Molly Scott Cato MEP.  Both Friends gave good accounts of themselves and made a good case (in my opinion) for active involvement in politics, including campaigning through political parties.  They served as a useful counterpart to the business sessions.

The business sessions.

Sometimes, there were four women (no men) at the table – three Clerks (including Deborah Rowlands), plus Juliet Prager, Deputy Recording Clerk (who alternated with Paul Parker, Recording Clerk).  This seemed right and fitting.  The clerking was of a high standard.

With hearts and heads prepared, we slowly moved forward, on hands and feet, to work out what our involvement in the world  should or might be.  We heard from the Friends that addressed us about movement building and co-operating with other organisations, in the cause of social change.  In particular, points were made about overcoming barriers to working with others, especially when some of their assumptions and procedures are different from ours.

I recollected Minute 36 of YMG 2011 (our ‘Canterbury commitment’) concerning sustainability and also our Minute 36 of 2014 about social justice and equality.  I did wonder whether we were consolidating rather than changing anything.  There was not the thrill created (for example) by the YM 2009 minute on equal marriage; but it is not right to expect great excitement on every occasion.

I appreciated the ministry of a Leeds Friends, who referred to her participation in party politics in her city and her service as a Councillor.  I had wanted to say how much I had enjoyed canvassing in the 2017 General Election, and how this had felt the right thing for me to do, but I was not called to speak.

I was struck by a non-business session in which our young introducers (Rachel Muers and Rhiannon Grant) told us the story behind the eight ‘Foundations of a true social order’ (Quaker faith & practice 23.16).  Despite the passing of a century since, and their male-centred language, the Foundations have stood the test of time; and no way has been found of improving on them.  (They were agreed speedily – during World War One!  Could we produce something so concise and punchy, in such a short time, nowadays?)

A highlight of the business was the oral report of the work of BYM Trustees (backing up the written one), given by Ingrid Greenhow (Clerk).  Ingrid made her points with great wit and enthusiasm.

In conclusion, many of the YMG addresses and lectures can be viewed via the Quakers in Britain website.  Recommended!

 

David Harries

19.08.17

Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.

 

*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.

 

When Religion Makes The News

On 8 November 2016, the National Union of Journalists and ITV Cymru Wales hosted the above-named event, at the Life Sciences Centre, Cardiff Bay.  It brought together journalists and people of belief (especially, media representatives), to discuss and improve communication and reporting.  It also offered a chance to “network”; over eighty people attended; and I got to speak to about a dozen, of a great variety of backgrounds, myself.

I should emphasise that the event came about at the initiative of journalists, not faith communities.  And it was a first in Britain.

The event was chaired by Roger Bolton, who has worked for many years in TV and radio – I have often heard him on the radio.

There were many speakers, throughout the day, both from journalist and faith groups.

The journalists’ situation can be summarised as follows.  The numbers working in traditional media have gone down.  Not only have they have been inclined, themselves, to be less religious than the general population, but also they have tended to subscribe to the idea that religious belief has been declining in importance.  (They have been proved wrong by events).  Those who wanted to report better were represented at this event, then.  They were challenged (loudly and clearly by Roger Bolton) (i) to inform themselves more deeply and (ii) to gain access to the wide variety of faith communities, while not relying solely on the contacts they already have.

In turn, the faith communities (Christians, Jews and Muslims) that were represented on a “panel” were challenged by Roger Bolton (i) to state explicitly what they have to offer to journalists and (ii) to outline the nature of their media operations. (The resources available varied widely between the communities.)

After lunch, journalists and faith communities met separately for one session.  For the faith group, the topic was: “Working with Journalists: an opportunity to consider your experience, your agenda, your media practice.”  It was led by three very knowledgeable women – with great communication skills – namely, Angela Graham (of the Media Policy Group of the Institute of Welsh Affairs), Christine Warwick, and Emma Meese (of Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism).

Angela said that belief is wider than faith and includes atheism and secularism.  She set the context: relationships are more important than technologies.  She added that we all communicate through our daily lives.

Angela posed these questions.

What do I most want to communicate?

Why do I want to communicate this?

What results do I hope for?

How will I handle the reactions (the criticism)?

What are the implications of using media I don’t control?

We are always communicating, including with the Divine.  This helps us deal with failure.  We are vulnerable – we need to be prepared.  We need a strategy for dealing with consequences and people for handling risk.  We (believers) are making big claims and so are held accountable (eg by journalists).  Take care of the members of your own group.

Notice where the seed you have sown has grown.  Chase up the messages you have left.  Communicate widely, with discernment, creatively, painstakingly, persistently.

Journalism, she said, is a way to help us live well together.  Journalists must challenge us, push us to think harder.

What is noteworthy?  The novel, the topical, the relevant, the significant, the relational, the provable, the jargon-free, the researched, the practical, the visible.

Pictures help.

We should be contactable, available, responsible, ready for risk.

Avoid propaganda, preaching and proselytism.

Next, Christine Warwick gave us concrete advice on the writing of press releases.

Target your press releases accurately.  Know about deadlines.

The most important should be in the first paragraph and should tell the reader: who, what, where, when, how.

Include the body of your press release in your email, not as an attachment.

Finally, in this session, Emma Meese talked about social media.  What she said about this could be applied, in part, to the more traditional media.  Remember KISSKeep It Short and Sweet.

Make the most of your Twitter profile.  Sell yourself.  But “don’t feed the trolls.”

 

This was a very stimulating day.  Many of those present would welcome a repeat, where topics could be dealt with at greater length.

 

I came away wondering how Quakers – especially those in Wales – can best rise to the challenges posed so vividly at this event.  I am very grateful, both to the organisers, and to Meeting of Friends for letting me go.

 

David Harries

 

 

SINGING FOR QUAKER WORSHIP

A few thoughts have come to me recently and have combined into a prompting.  I have shared this with my Local Meeting in Wales (Britain) and now I would like to share it further.

Quakers in Britain adhere to silent worship, with occasional vocal contributions (spoken ministry).  This is a minority position in the Quaker world.

Within my home country, Wales, I am continually impressed by the high standard of music playing and in particular of singing (solo, duet, choir, etc) at our Eisteddfodau (multi-aspect cultural meetings and competitions).  This reflects the time and effort put in, the value attached to it, and the tradition.

I have been thinking about the stewardship of a two hundred year old Meeting House in our Area: both Meeting and Meeting House need support, especially as the number of Friends is small and the building is in need of much attention.  It may well prove necessary (and desirable) to elicit the support of the local community, to raise awareness and interest, to generate wider use of the Meeting House, and indeed, to generate funds. Could music play a part here?

I have recently listened to a BBC Radio 3 programme (recorded and put aside for later listening) about the work of the Hungarian composer and teacher, Zoltán Kodály. He believed that everybody can sing; and he devised techniques to bring this about; and his influence is widespread.

In my work as a social worker, I have often remarked how useful and powerful music is in communication with, and stimulation of, people suffering from dementia.

I note that in my own lifetime, and during my long association with Friends, the arts have been warmly embraced, in various ways.  (This has been a cultural shift.)  Examples of our achievements are the Quaker Tapestry and the work of the Leaveners, among many others.

I wonder whether, in the seventeenth century, Friends in Britain missed a trick, as they turned their back on music and concentrated on silent waiting in Meeting for Worship.  I love the silence (and the vocal ministry, of course); and our tradition must be retained and suffer no infringement.  But to outsiders our form of worship must appear austere and off-putting.

Music is a part of all cultures on the planet.  All peoples sing.

I think that as Friends we should think about using music and particularly organised singing.  It has connected purposes: therapy, community generation, the understanding of our message, the conveying of our message to others, and (potentially) bringing new people in to sing with us.

Preaching in a public space is one thing; but singing is quite another – engaging and not threatening.

I envisage local groups of Friends (volunteers) practising singing together and getting better. (If they already exist, let’s have more.)  This may involve training, and it may mean payment.  But I see this as an investment.

I see this as a singing movement.  I foresee unaccompanied singing, at an early stage, but instrumentalists can be drawn in.

The material?  We have Quaker songs.  There are peace songs.  We can also have new songs and lyrics composed and written for us.

We have many singers and musicians among us.  Where do they perform now?  Surely, not much in Quaker contexts.

I would like us to sing out our message to the world, wherever and whenever we can.

 

David Harries

Member of Bridgend Local Meeting, South Wales Area Meeting

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616, and the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it

The relatively obscure and seldom performed early play, King John, resembles the much better known Richard III (written, perhaps, a little earlier)I value John, and I wish to make some comments in its favour, and to compare it with Richard.

It must be acknowledged that the play is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.

Plot summary

Possession of the English crown is contested.  John has might rather than right on his side.  He maintains his power against the claim of Arthur, his nephew, supported by France and the Pope.  (Arthur dies, in suspicious circumstances: John is blamed.)  John nearly loses his crown, when the Dauphin (the French king’s son’s invades England and the English lords join sides with him.  John’s cause is rescued by Faulconbridge (a fictional bastard son of King Richard I) and Hubert (a commoner).  John dies, not in battle (as Richard III does) but as the result of poisoning by a monk.  He is succeeded by his own son, Henry III.

THEME 1 – KINGS

Both John and Richard portray the rise and fall of a king who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  Richard is single-minded, strong and tyrannous; but John is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge; he is easily outwitted by Pandulph, the papal legate.

There are in theory alternative kings for England.  Arthur is young and weak and over-dependent on his mother.  A victim of John’s machinations, he strikes a very pathetic figure.  Faulconbridge, the (fictional) son of Richard I, has the qualities of wit, strength of character and loyalty, but he is disqualified by his illegitimacy.

On the French side, the king and his son act in their own interest, against that of England; and Pandulph, the papal legate, does likewise.

THEME 2 – ACTIONS

Both plays feature dynastic marriages: in John, between John’s Niece, Blanche, and the future Louis VIII of France.

Both plays have English lords who have shifting loyalties as between rival claimants to the throne.

Both include battles and an invasion of England: in Richard, the future Henry VII makes good his claim to the crown; in John, the future Louis VIII of France returns home empty-handed.

The tragic fate of Arthur, John’s nephew, parallels that of Richard’s victims, especially that of his own nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”).

Women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.  In King John, major female characters exit early:

  • Blanche, at the end of Act 3 Scene 1
  • Eleanor (John’s mother), at the end of Act 3 Scene 3
  • Constance (Arthur’s mother), in Act 3 Scene 4.

(This feature was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

THEME 3 – REACTIONS, MALE

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Pandulph, in particular, is a skilled practitioner of the misuse of rhetoric and specious arguments for his own ends.

 

Surprisingly, perhaps, Prince Louis of France does strike a note of regret about how events have turned out, in a few remarkable lines (Act 3 Scene 4):

     There’s nothing in this world can make me joy.

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,

And bitter shame hath spoiled the sweet world’s taste,

That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.

 

THEME 4 – REACTIONS, FEMALE

 

As in Richard III, it is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  (Arthur finds the words for fear.)  Blanche talks about her divided loyalties, when her father and her husband are at war with each other.  Constance vents her grief, and her anger, over the capture of Arthur and his betrayal by his French allies.

Those who mourn, in the body of John are the victims of ambitious men (kings, earls and the papal legate) and their single-minded pursuit of power.  (Compare Richard III and his allies.)

 

THE ENDING

 

The final scene is characterised by the quiet fading away of King John himself and the perfunctory mourning of his passing, followed by Faulconbridge’s putting in a few words acceptance of the present and optimism about the future.  To paraphrase: ‘the King is dead, long live the king!’ and ‘England is strong if we stick together.’

 

Conclusion

 

A problem is that John commences somewhat as a comedy but develops into a tragedy.  Well, it would be a tragedy (rather than a history, perhaps), if John himself was a stronger, albeit flawed, character – a hero, or at least a clear anti-hero – and if his death formed a climax to the play rather than an anti-climax.  John lacks Richard III’s wicked humour, cleverness and depth of deceitfulness, which simultaneously attracts and repels the reader or the member of the audience.  (The wit and wisdom are left to Faulconbridge.)

 

But do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?

 

In accordance with many of Shakespeare’s early history plays, King John I contains many long rhetorical speeches (as does Richard III).  These require skilled acting on the stage.  In my opinion, several are over-long and repetitive and will benefit from cuts in performance.

 

On balance, then, King John is worth a look.

[the long version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King John died 1216, Shakespeare died 1616 – the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it.

It must be acknowledged that King John is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  (Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.)  It portrays the rise and fall of King John, who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  (Compare and contrast Richard III.)  He is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge.

It is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  But the women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.

(This aspect was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Other characters display their pursuit of “commodity”, to the detriment of others.

 

Do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?  And dangerous!

[the short version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Militarism, pacifism, Christianity

Events in the UK in 2016 make me think – particularly Brexit (a horrible new word) and the vote in Parliament in favour of a replacement for the current Trident submarine system.

Brexit means a sovereign nation state disentangling itself from an international alliances – against the worldwide trend.

Trident replacement also means a sovereign state trying to assert itself as a global power – in a changed world.

One excuse for Trident replacement is the assertion that it forms a UK contribution to NATO.  However, whatever the UK provides is dwarfed by the US contribution.

The building, testing and maintenance of nuclear weapons systems is extremely expensive – billions of pounds.  (Will the cost go up?)

This policy has been kept up since the end of the Second World War.

I would argue that the costs associated with nuclear weapons has distorted the UK economy all this time.  Compare the more prosperous Germany, which has no such weapons.

(The economic record of West Germany and subsequently the reunited Germany has been far superior to the UK’s.  The UK has suffered successive devaluations of its currency, with no visible long term benefit, whereas West Germany periodically revalued – upwards – the Deutsche Mark.)

UK policies are characterised by militarism – they rest on the belief that war, and preparedness for war – is an acceptable way of solving conflicts.

I wish to step back in time for a while.

In the 1930s, in the UK, success stories include the defeat of home grown fascism and the acceptance of refugees (many of them Jewish, many of them children).

In the 1940s, after long struggles and much shedding of blood, fascism was defeated in Germany, Italy, Japan, etc.  A case can be made that here, militarism worked.  Once defeated, resistance by the fascist elites crumbled; and democracy was installed (with a great degree of success).

The nature of war has changed.  Recognisable front lines have gone; guerrilla tactics and terrorism are prevalent; that the great powers rely heavily on air strikes (bombing both the armed and unarmed on the ground).  The world is flooded with so-called “small arms” and indeed BIG arms too.  So if a former imperial power, like the UK, or a current economic and military power, like the USA, invades a country, they run great risks of being confronted by Kalashnikovs and more.

The practicality of militarism is called into question.  (Have we realised this yet?)  As for Trident, is it really a cold war weapon?  Is it a useful response to the threats we all face, in 21st century?  In particular, does it help us counter terrorism?  I think not.

It is fair to recognise that governments have the responsibility to use ‘reasonable force’ (UK courts pay attention to this) to maintain law and order (‘the Queen’s peace’) at home.  Indeed, many people who work in the public sector play some role in this (eg social workers, myself included).

The picture, beyond the borders, is less clear.  For example, one of the duties placed on the UK’s Royal Navy is the protection of British trade, ie that carried by the Merchant Navy – this can be a long way from home.

So much for practicalities.  What about the ethics of militarism?  Is it compatible with (for example) Christianity?

To go to the root of Christianity: the teaching of Jesus is pacifist.  Consider the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew and Luke).  We should allow for the fact that the Gospels do not provide a political manifesto, nor (in my opinion) a clear answer to every detailed moral problem that arises today.

One aspect of Christianity is other-worldliness.  Militarists constantly argue that we have to live in the “real world”.  (A counsel of despair.)  In other words, war will be abolished when all lay down their weapons.  Till then, “if you seek peace, prepare for war.”  An excuse or a reason?

If militarism is essential to the maintenance of “law and order” between nations, then the corollary is that Christianity, as it has been handed down to us, is imperfect – idealist and not realistic.

One can argue that when Christians were a minority, in the Roman Empire, governance was not an issue for them – they were the governed.  (And they had to decide when to conform to Roman rule and when not to.  Saints Peter and Paul tried to give guidance on this.)

Eventually, of course, Christians (genuine or nominal) found themselves in positions of power, in many countries, and in many times.

This is the point where I need to refer to the conventional wisdom that the first duties of the State are to safeguard its population, internally and at its borders.  I also need to refer to the idea, concocted by theologians, of the “just war”.

It is virtually impossible to wage a “just war”, especially today.  No state or alliance can be sure that a display of its fire power will result in a conclusive military victory.  Recent history differs significantly from that of the 1940s (see above).

I worry that, once one steps into the arena of governance, backed up by force and the threat of force, it is not clear where one should stop – where the line should be drawn.

I also fear that, if one possesses military might, then one may be tempted to use it.  (Every challenge is like a nail; and the military response will be like a hammer.)

Self-restraint on the part of a government is required. Sometimes, members of the public, media moguls and populist politicians will demand the opposite.  I do not see the development of Trident as an example of self-restraint.  And I have grave doubts about other systems too.

Self-restraint is the watchword.  It is the best concept I can offer at present.

Building Bridges after the UK referendum

The Britain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has put out  a statement:

The outcome of the European Union referendum and the campaigning that led up to it have shown up and sometimes exacerbated divisions within and between our communities.

There is now great need for bridge-building, for reaching out to one another in love, trusting that below the political differences lie a shared humanity and a wish for flourishing communities.

Inequalities run deep in society and some are exposed by the vote.

Quakers in England, Scotland and Wales are committed to working together and with others – including Quakers cross Europe – for a peaceful and just world.  In the coming year our Quaker Yearly Meeting will focus ob building movements with others locally and globally.  We refuse to prejudge who is or is not an ally.

Turbulent times can be frightening, but the Spirit is a source of strength for all, in guiding us in who we are and what we do.  We take heart from the knowledge that with change comes opportunity.  We will look for creative ways to find common cause, to listen, to influence and to persuade.  As the status quo is shaken we and our neighbours must look to one another for support, wisdom and above all else ways of healing divisions.