Saturday, October 13, 2007

Shakespeare: Poet, Bard ... Bureaucrat?

"Here is more matter for a hot brain." - Autolycus, Act III of The Winter's Tale.

TSB spent the weekend at one of my favorite places, the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, watching a favorite play, The Winter's Tale. I'm always astounded by how familiar Shakespeare's characters seem. They twist language like born press spokesmen: Autolycus, the con-man and cut-purse, describes himself as "a collector of unconsidered trifles." Perfect spin!

As a bureaucrat, and someone with a passion for history, I just love Shakespeare. Most of his plays are about royal power struggles and court intrigues, things that are instantly recognizable as the Elizabethan form of inside-the-beltway politics. Before the creation of the nation-state, before modern administrative government with its Cabinet departments and civil servants, you had courts and courtiers. It was pretty much the same system we have today, only back then they wore fancier clothes.

What's more, Shakespeare became something of a bureaucrat himself after he received King James's royal commission and started turning out sublime propaganda for his new patron. He even re-named his theatrical company "The King's Men." Check out Shakespeare, the King's Playwright (Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613) by Alvin Kernan for some insight into how the Bard's history plays did the King's bidding.

Shakespeare also wrote the book - well, the play - on politically motivated violence, AKA terrorism. MacBeth is only ostensibly a play about the murder of a Scottish king, it is really a dramatization of King James's clever spin on the Gunpowder Plot (which was an attempt to murder a Scottish king - King James himself). See Faith and Treason, by Antonia Fraser, for the story of the Plot. Among its many modern resonances, the Plot included the first-ever attempt to blow up a government office building - and by religious extremists, no less. You can't get much more modern than that!

If you ever find yourself near the Shenandoah Valley, I highly recommend a stop at the Blackfriars, the only place today where you can experience Shakespeare EXACTLY as it was staged in the original theater. Accept no substitutes: you can see Shakespeare any place, but anywhere else is really second-rate.

No comments: