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.

 

A poet’s labour lost?

Arguably, it can be said of Love’s Labour’s Lost that, among Shakespeare’s plays, it is relatively seldom performed and therefore less known by those who go to see plays and those who study S’s works.

Kenneth Branagh made a film of LLL in 2000.  He used very little of the original text.  He set the story in the 1930s, with period American songs to match (like a musical).

In recent years, LLL has been put on at The Globe and by the RSC.  Seeing the latter on DVD has prompted me to reconsider my attitude to the play (which remains somewhat mixed).

What is it about?  Why is it less popular?

“Boy meets girl”

Here, we have the matter of four boys chasing the four girls who arrive at their court (ostensibly on an embassy).  The gentlemen (or lords) – The King of Navarre and his coterie – are boyish and immature.  They swear a foolish oath, to abjure the company of women for three years, and swiftly break it in the light of reality (their sexual drive).

The “girls”, on the other hand – the Princess of France and her attendants – are grown-up ladies.  They are impressed, neither by the men’s oath, nor their breaking of it.  The ladies leave to go home, on receipt of the news that the Princess’s father (the King of France) has died.  The coup-de-théâtre – the arrival of the messenger from France, in the middle of an entertainment – dramatically breaks the comical tone, bordering on the farcical, that has characterised the play hitherto.

The male suitors are made to wait for a year (and meanwhile to use their time wisely) before trying to court the ladies again.  As one gentleman (Browne) puts it: “Jack hath not Jill.”  (Compare the ending of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.)

Can one identify with any of these characters?  At least, the ladies are more sensible than the gentlemen.

The other characters

Most of these are comedians or caricatures (or both).  The comic ones are: the ladies’ male attendant, a Spanish knight (and braggart), his page, a pedantic schoolmaster, a curate, a constable, and a clown.  The dairymaid and the forester are neutral.  By virtue of his role, the messenger from France is serious.

Arguably, Shakespeare sees some of these men as figures of fun.  They tend (variously) to use puns and plays on words, Latinisms and ornate language.  There are jokes, but many of these are unintelligible nowadays, without notes; and so they are best omitted from the play in performance.  Notably, the knight’s language reveals no Hispanic features.  (The thinking behind this is lost to us.)

One can accuse the male suitors (above) of elaborate, dense language traits too.  The ladies are more straightforward, while still witty.

Aspect One

In a way, nothing much happens in this play.  The men talk, the ladies arrive, the men try to court the ladies (without success), and the ladies leave, leaving sound advice as their parting shot.

One can add that the dairymaid is revealed to be pregnant – either by the clown or the knight.  There is an implication that it is the knight who will care for her.

Aspect Two

The play has much to do about language – its uses and abuses.  (Compare The Merry Wives of Windsor, in this regard.)

Much of the play is written in rhymed verse (spoken by the lords and ladies).  Embedded in the speeches there are six sonnets, by my reckoning.  The four lords compose one love poem (each) to the ladies they profess to love: three of these are sonnets.  (Worth a look.)  (Three of the poems are reproduced in The Passionate Pilgrim.)

The play ends, delightfully, with two songs – (i) the spring song of the cuckoo and (ii) the winter song of the owl.  (Worth a look too.)

Aspect Three

The male characters – both lords and commoners – attempt to entertain the ladies – but with little or no success.

At one point, the lords approach the ladies disguised themselves as Muscovites (why!?); but, as the ladies have been tipped off, they have no difficulty in getting ready for them, by disguising themselves, too, and hence confusing them.

The comic male characters put on a show of the “Nine Worthies” (five attempting to portray nine, between them!); but their acting is disrupted, firstly by the derision of the lords, and secondly, by the arrival of the messenger from France.

Aspect Four

LLL has great displays of witBut how funny is it?

Perhaps the funniest part is to be found in Act 4, Scene 3.  Here the four lords, arrive, in succession, to read their love poems aloud but (as they suppose) in secret. They suffer the indignity of being spied on by their fellows and then being confronted with the breaking of the shared oath.  Each one has to admit that he is in love with one of the ladies.

(The men are fine poets but clumsy lovers.)

Conclusion

LLL is hard to put on; it is hard to make a success of it; it requires the exercise of imagination and a willingness to make cuts, on the part of the production team.  With the aid of explanatory notes, LLL is readable – in places, amusing, in other places, rather tedious.

Many of Shakespeare’s works show a timeless quality (although times and places are evoked).  On examination, LLL comes across as very much product of its period, the 1590s, by virtue of its veiled allusions (i) to the works of certain of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, eg those of Sir Philip Sidney, and (ii) to contemporary events, eg in France – all rather obscure, today.  Hence, there is a distance between the rather artificial world portrayed by LLL and our world today (and the literature and drama that reflect it).

Love’s Labour’s Won

Such a play may have existed – a sequel to LLL; but if so, it is lost, under this title.  Various hypotheses have been put forward, suggesting that one or other surviving play fits the bill – Love’s Labour’s Won under a different name – for example, Much Ado About Nothing or All’s Well That Ends Well.  I venture to suggest, instead, The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Fenton succeeds in marrying Miss Anne Page (winning out against Dr Caius and Slender).

Editions and versions taken into account

I have read these editions of LLL and the editors’ introductions:

1 Kerrigan, J (1982), Penguin: Harmondsworth (Middlesex)

2 Hibbard, G R (1990), OUP: Oxford

3 Woudhuysen, H R (1998), Arden 3 (Thomas Nelson & Sons): Walton-on-Thames

Performances

1 Branagh, K (director) (2000) – cinema film and video

2 Luscombe, C (director) (2015) – DVD of live performance.

 

 

 

The Uses of Satire in 21st Century

Is satire of any use?  Does it change anything?

Sometimes real events appear to stretch the capabilities of commentators who wish to address through criticism, invective, ridicule or, indeed, satire.

Satire has a very long history. Numerous definitions of it are available.  Many literary or dramatic productions have satirical elements or passages.  The boundaries are blurred at the edges.  I take it that cartoons can be satirical: when they address individuals, they probably qualify as lampoons rather than satires: I rely on the definitions cited below.

I would like to refer to two definitions of satire, as they are insightful, in my opinion.

In his famous dictionary (1755), Samuel Johnson noted the definition from the Latin ‘satira’ and defined it as:

A poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.  Proper satire is distinguished, by the generality of the reflections, from a lampoon which is aimed against a particular person; but they are too frequently confounded.

 

The aim of satire is clear.  The literary nature is given as the mode of expression.  Verse is preferred to prose.  (Discuss!)

 

Secondly, I refer to the 1946 MA thesis of a Mr E L Watrin, student at Loyola ir

 

(See: Watrin, Eugene L., Absalom and Achitophel in the Light of the Scholastic Canons of Aesthetics (1946). Master’s Theses. Paper 417. http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_theses/417 Accessed 7 Feb 2017)

In his thesis, Mr Watrin examined the nature of satire in general and John Dryden’s 1681 verse satire in particular.

Dryden’s long poem fulfils the criteria of Samuel Johnson’s definition, as it is in verse, and it is aimed at a particular time, place and group of people (England’s powerful men – mostly, those in government).

One of the clever aspects of the poem is the parallels Dryden establishes between the English of his time and the Jews of the 2nd Book of Samuel in the Bible.  Hence, King David represents King Charles II and Absalom (David’s illegitimate son) represents the Duke of Monmouth (Charles’s own illegitimate son).  And so on.

The poem still meets with admiration among scholars.  But few people today know much about this part of the OT, nor late 7th century English history, nor John Dryden, let know Absalom and Achitophel.   (I shall comment on this, below.)

I proceed to Mr Watrin’s carefully considered definition of satire:

As a working description which can serve as foundation for further explanation we might say that satire is literature written to reform or improve, rendered effective by rhetorical devices. Or….satire is a literary production in which the correction of abuse is the principal form, and the rhetorical devices which add brilliance to this first form are the secondary forms. The three notes which characterize satire are the literary manner, the corrective purpose, and the use of rhetoric. The first distinguished it from the sermon or oration, the second from comedy, and the third from impassioned diatribe. [page 31]

This definition permits the inclusion of prose satire, so long as it reaches a high literary standard and uses rhetorical devices.

The trouble is that, generally, satire’s edge loses its sharpness with the passage of time.  The writer presupposes that the reader or audience will understand who or what the targets are.  As time passes, many issues which give rise to satire become footnotes in history.  It takes a great writer to produce something that lasts and that gives delight and perhaps instruction to later generations.  Who fulfils this criterion?

I would put forward a few names: Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), George Orwell (1903-1950), and Dario Fo (1926-2016). (Not meant to be an exclusive list.)

Swift

Jonathan Swift was a prolific writer of satires.  He is best remembered nowadays for his Gulliver’s Travels (1726 and 1735)The precise historical background is lost to today’s readers, in the absence of footnotes.  However, readers can make their own connections to abuses of the present day.

Fo

Dario Fo has been a prolific and popular writer and indeed multi-tasker.  His Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Morte accidentale di un anarchico) (1970), for example, albeit constructed as a farce, satirises police corruption and illogicality, mercilessly and (I think) effectively.

Orwell

George Orwell is still widely admired – but particularly for two works.

Animal Farm (1945) is extremely well constructed. It is clear and concise.  It has a strong internal logic.  It makes a clever use of allegory: the animal characters are endowed with human traits. It is funny, but the humour is bitter.

The satire is upon totalitarianism.  It appears that Orwell was thinking of Soviet-style communism; but it my opinion it can be applied to fascism too.

Some of the phrases have become well-known quotations, for example: “Four legs good, two legs good,” and its distortion into “Four legs good, two legs better”, and “All animals are equal,” which is twisted into “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

A warning from history!

I do not see Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four/1984 (1949) as a satire.  Whereas Animal Farm starts on a heroic note and ends in a dystopia, 1984 presents the reader with an ongoing dystopia. It can be seen as a second take on the end situation depicted in Animal Farm.

Many of its concepts have entered the language, for example, “Big Brother” and “Newspeak”.  “Newspeak” has relevance to the 21st century, as today we hear talk of “fake news” and “post-truth” – in other words, lies.  (I note that Rudyard Kipling, in his poem If, spoke of: “the truth you’ve spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”!  Identify the knaves!)

George Orwell has been read continually from the 1940s up to 2017; and his reputation as a writer-critic is secure.  His books have not dated.  Totalitarianism has not disappeared.

On the whole, I believe that satire does not, in itself, cause political change; but it tends to raise the awareness of readers and audiences of the issues that impinge upon them (whether short or long term).  It acts as a corrective to lies and misinformation. It still has its uses.

 

 

 

 

 

Dulness, deceit and dunces; populism, priorities and prophecy

Populism and priorities

I used to think that populism was a good thing – the will of the people.  Now I have doubts.  It seems that populism represents a series of reactions to single issue problems.  It is likely to result in inconsistencies – trying to have your cake and eat it.  Object to wind turbines but still expect a cheap, reliable supply of electricity, for example.

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism” – Aneurin Bevan (1949).  One could say, indeed, that the language of priorities is the language of politics.  But the present UK government chooses to underfund and to undermine public services.  Its priorities lie elsewhere – the maximisation of private profit.  The result is the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  (Trickle-down economics does not work.)

The world in 2017

I move on to British trade and foreign policy.  HM Government aims to abandon close ties with our European neighbours on our doorstep and to seek trade with countries far away.  The promises of success appear very dubious.

Today, Europe (including the UK) finds itself situated (sandwiched) between two powerful countries – Russia and the USA – between Putin and Trump – populist leaders.  Shouldn’t this be a factor in UK policy making?  Isn’t the UK safer, anchored in Europe?

Satire and prophecy

Satire appears inadequate to tackle this situation.  Over the centuries, satirists have bent their bows and let arrows fly.  Their admirers smile.  The people in power, targeted, ignore them or retaliate.  As time goes by, later readers fail to understand the context of the satire unless supplied with explanatory notes.

Despite this, I feel moved to draw upon satire – in particular, that of the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744).  I see parallels between his world and ours.

I refer to Pope’s long polemical and satirical poem, the Dunciad, where Pope creates a mock anti-goddess, who he calls “Dulness”.  She represents trends in society, politics and the media towards obscurantism, selfishness, greed, cliquishness and monopolisation of power – a dystopic vision of a world governed by dunces.

I associate ‘Dulness’, indeed, with certain 21st century trends, for example, “post-truth” and “fake news” (also known simply as lies).

The poem

Here I quote from the beginning and end of the final version of the Dunciad (1743), which depict first the return and then the ultimate triumph of Dulness, in 18th century London:

                            In eldest time….

Dulness o’er all possessed her ancient right,

Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night:

Fate in their dotage this fair Ideot gave,

Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave,

Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,

She ruled, in native Anarchy, the mind.

Still her old Empire to restore she tries,

For, born a Goddess, Dulness never dies.

 

[Book I, 9-18]

 

         She comes! She comes! The sable Throne behold

Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!…

Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

         Lo! Thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And Universal Darkness buries All.

 

[Book IV: 651-656]

 

Evaluation

 

In my study of the writings of Alexander Pope, I rely largely on a slim volume of literary criticism (1989), produced by David Fairer, now professor of 18th century literature at Leeds University. In his chapter on the Dunciad, he comments: “In the world of Dulness there are no objective standards, no structures of ideas against which to measure the truth” [page 154].  (Does this sound familiar?)

 

David Fairer concludes his chapter with a warning:

 

Increasingly, we are coming to understand how the mad visions of the few, combined with the passive mindless of the many, could conceivably bring the end of the world.  The prophecies of The Dunciad are coming close to us, and it is becoming easier to discern a relationship between a pacifying mass culture (….), the growth of mass movements (….), and the concentration of power in the hands of a few charismatic leaders (….).  The pseudo-energy of Dulness, with her flagrant appeal to selfish instincts in the guise of freedom….is a principle which is still alive, and still threatens us. [Page 158]

 

Conclusion

 

David Fairer’s book was published in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the old Cold War was coming to an end, and optimism pervaded the world.  See where we are now!

 

Pope’s and Fairer’s words are prophetic, indeed, and worth heeding.  We ignore them at our peril.

 

References

 

Butt, J (ed) (1963), The Poems of Alexander Pope (one-volume), London: Routledge.

 

Fairer, D (1989), The Poetry of Alexander Pope, Harmondsworth: Penguin.