Mentioning Shakespeare to a classroom of students is somewhat akin to telling them they are about to receive a massive dose of cod liver oil – something to be avoided at all costs. Maybe it’s true, as someone once said, that education is wasted on the young, because the older I get, the more I understand what the Bard has to offer to our fractured and troubled world. Today I would like to discuss only one small element of his relevance.
Being something of a ‘political junkie’ may be one of the many reasons that I took such pleasure in teaching two of Shakespeare’s greatest works: Macbeth and Hamlet. But literary merits aside, the plays’ compelling qualities are in part informed by the Elizabethan view of the universe, one that we have long since abandoned, but which, at its core, perhaps helps to explain much of the political and moral malaise of our times. Known as “The Great Chain of Being,” this view, very concisely, stipulated that there was a natural order in the universe, with everything emanating from God. Each realm, be it divine, human, animal, or mineral, had a hierarchy; remnants of that notion remain today. For example, we talk of the lion as the ‘king of the jungle; reason has priority over emotion, the eagle is deemed the head of things avian, etc. In the realm of human affairs, the country’s leader, the King, was believed to be God’s representative in the secular world, and thus was responsible for the well-being of the people. If the King was good, the nation prospered; if bad, as in the case of a usurper, the country suffered.
Both Macbeth and Hamlet deal with usurpers, people who have stolen the crown from God’s rightful representative. In both cases, the people suffer tremendously. Under the bloody dictator Macbeth, Scotland suffers a reign of terror; in Hamlet, the usurper Claudius, who has killed his brother in order to ascend to the kingship, is responsible for a moral corruption that grips Denmark.
So what’s Shakespeare got to do with anything? Well, even though power is no longer seen as coming from above, i.e., from God, but rather from below, i.e., the people, (at least in a democracy,) I have never really subscribed to the notion that government is merely a reflection of the people, that people get the government they deserve through the electoral process. After all, very few purposely vote for ineptitude, corruption, and cronyism; yet these elements seem to define so many democracies today.
The part of the Great Chain of Being so pertinent today is the infectious nature of bad leadership. Here I don’t mean the obvious consequences of being led by someone not fit to govern: abuses of basic freedoms, manipulation of truth, the abrogation of due process, catering to special interests, etc. More insidious, and something Shakespeare clearly demonstrates in Hamlet, is the toll exacted upon the nation’s spiritual health. The central metaphor of Hamlet is that of an unseen yet highly contagious disease. If we consider the widespread cynicism and disengagement gripping people today, we are witnessing the effects of bad leadership.. When people refuse to vote because they don’t feel it will make any difference, when they ascribe corruption and greed as the main motivations for people seeking elected office, when they evince little or no surprise at the flouting of constitutional laws by their elected representatives, they not only have fallen victim to a spiritual or moral malaise, they are in fact facilitating its spread, something I suspect our elected representatives are not in the least bit concerned about; after all, the more disengagement and disaffection there is amongst the voters, the easier it is for politicians to continue on their self-aggrandizing paths.
So what is the solution, the cure for this disease? How does a nation recover its soul?
Those are questions I would like to consider in a future article.