Asia

Focus on contemporary security issues – The Island

by Dr. Siri Galhenage

Preamble

Once upon a time, in the isle of Serendib, a soldier-turned politician was offered the reins of governance by popular choice. The chosen ruler commenced his journey with a pledge to reshape the nation against the backdrop of an ancient monument, reminiscent of past glory. He embarked on his mission with a vision for prosperity, riding his favourite stallion named ‘patriotism’, and was accompanied by his kith and kin, a sprinkling of war lords, a few learned courtiers and a large coterie of foot-soldiers, with varying degrees of intellect. The plebeians rejoiced: giving lyrical expression to their joy and painting colourful murals on ramparts. Renowned men of letters portrayed the new leader as an incarnation of a legendary monarch of yore who helped to vanquish the foe.

The vision turned out to be an illusion. The mission failed as a result of poor governance: bad decisions, alleged corrupt practices, and the refusal of the leader to wear the cloak of humility. The lilies that sprung up along the wayside, withered in their bud. The nation was thrown into an abyss of despair, debt and depravity, of unprecedented depth. A proud nation – endowed with an ancient cultural and spiritual heritage, a wealth of human potential, and a land like no other – was brought to its knees, having to swap the sword for a begging bowl.

The plebeians felt deceived; they poured out into the streets in large numbers, and the corridors of power were inundated. ‘Bernham wood did come to Dunsinane’. The protesters were mostly peaceful but some errant individuals displaced their anger onto property causing wanton destruction; their identity remaining illusive, covered in a veil of smoke.

The ruler, after a period of procrastination, fled the country, handing over ‘the baton’ to a tried and tested leader, resulting in the perpetuation of agitation amongst the plebeians.

The hapless plebeians remain in a state of perplexity, scraping the bottom of the barrel for credible leadership and good governance. Vultures from the east and the west, and from the north, hover over our resplendent isle, and the nation remains curled up and vulnerable with only the dumb sea to the south to escape to.

A Shakespearean Tragedy

I am no ‘upstart crow in borrowed feathers’ but the above synopsis is not dissimilar to a tragedy in a Shakespearean sense. The theme is consistent with most of Shakespeare’s tragedies – the passions of men and women, and the transgressions they lead to, weaving the web of their own fate, and of their state. In Shakespeare, there were no unflawed or ideal leaders; their inadequacies are instructive in imagining the leadership we look for.

At a time when a nation struggles as hard as now to find solutions, regarding political leadership and good governance, one could draw lessons from Shakespeare’s insights by reflecting on some of his characters that dominated the stage. It is the central concern of this brief essay, at a time when stable, effective, ethical, and, most of all, sensible, leadership is in short supply. It is a measure of Shakespeare’s stature, not only as the world’s greatest playwright, but also as an equally great analyst of human behaviour and motivation, that he provides a window to matters of the state, so perceptively. He remains meaningful and relevant to many of the political challenges we face today, and has a way of throwing light on the darker places we fear to tread.

Despite the scarcity of records, regarding his early education, Shakespeare appears to have drawn heavily from Greek and Roman classical literature, and from the historical records of medieval Britain. He wrote scripts that projected the social and political realities of his time and engaged with the deepest desires and fears of his audiences. Sensitive contemporary issues were addressed in alien or historical settings in order to avoid political censure. He succeeded in linking past history to events of the day. And his timeless work with universal appeal is of relevance to us in the 21st century as never before.

Shakespeare is not didactic and does not offer solutions to the challenges we face. But he is educational in the way of parable, inference, and demonstration. At a time when he thought was dangerous to speak out, he found it safer to communicate through dramatic expression by locating his plays in medieval Europe. He presented controversial issues wearing a mask of innocence! ‘Play’s the thing’, for him.

Political Power – Its Use and Misuse

Political power is of the essence in the delivery of governance; its energies meant to be utilised for common good. Such honourable intensions, with a community focus, are not foremost in the minds of many who pursue a career in politics today: personal aggrandisement and pecuniary interest being their primary motive, bringing politics and politicians into disrepute. Many distort the truth and tap into people’s ignorance and prejudices to gain power, and some may even be prepared to sacrifice the lives of fellow human beings in the pursuit and maintenance of power. No wonder politics and politicians are treated pejoratively at the present time.

Pursuit of Power in Politics

Shakespeare went back to medieval Scotland to discover a story that depicted such ruthless ambition for power, in MACBETH, a story that spoke to his own times.

A ‘war hero’, whose innate desire for power, ignited by the cryptic prophesies of three witches, is driven on a path of destruction to achieve his goal and maintain it, bringing about a collapse in moral order. He is made to suffer and eventually destroyed. Enemy forces encircled and invaded his castle resulting in him losing his head, both metaphorically and in reality. Power misused does not bring in peace, but inner and outer turmoil: “In the affliction of these terrible dreams/ That shake us nightly: better be with the dead/ Whom we, to gain our peace/ Than on the torture of the mind to lie/ Is restless ecstasy”.

Political Machinations in Vying for Power – Hypocrisy and Deceit

The propensity to manipulate the truth, through political machinations, is a common strategy in vying for power in affairs of the state, given dramatic expression by Shakespeare in ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’, bringing forth the moral depravity in politics. “Men may construe things after their fashion/ Clean from the purpose of things themselves” [Cicero: Act1 -1.3.34-5].

The plot depicts the assassination of Caesar as the pivotal event of the play. Caesar emerges as a formidable leader but with a paradoxical mixture of characteristics of arrogance and vulnerable physique. Cassius, malcontent and conniving, instigates a plan to remove Caesar from power and hatches a plot to draw Brutus and others to conspiracy, claiming that Caesar would ‘soar above the view of men’ and would establish a new monarchy. Brutus says to Cassius: “Let not our looks put on our purposes/ But bear it as our Roman actors do/ With untir’d spirits and formal constancy”.

Opportunistic alliances

Following the fall of Caesar, Antony, a Caesar loyalist with his own leadership ambitions, outshines Brutus in a rhetorical contest. In the aftermath of Caesar’s death, the newly formed alliances [Brutus and Cassius on the one hand and Antony, Lepidus and Octavius on the other] take up arms against each other. Antony emerges as victor.

Drawing from Roman history, Shakespeare brings to life the so-called heroes, traitors, conspirators, betrayers, hypocrites and opportunists, who often cluster on the political stage, not to mention the gullible masses who constantly get carried away with the tide of rhetoric. Shakespeare makes himself our contemporary by bringing forth issues such as patriotism; authoritarianism; militarism; fact and fiction in political rhetoric; personal interest versus common good; violence and war as a continuation of politics [as Clausewitz aphorized]; and lack of permanent friends or foes, in the affairs of the state.

Moral Virtues and Failings in Politics

Drawing from a collection of biographies [‘Parallel Lives’] by Plutarch, the Greek essayist who took up Roman citizenship, Shakespeare illustrates the moral virtues and failings of a legendary Roman military leader turned politician, Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, in one of his most political of tragedies.

Coriolanus was a ‘war hero’ in the true sense of the title: a valiant soldier credited for the sacrifice he made in the defence of Rome [“Every gash of mine was an enemy’s grave”] and for his military achievement in Corioles against the invading Volscians, and entering into a lone battle with the enemy leader, Aufidius. Coriolanus emerges victorious.

Coriolanus was nurtured to be a fighter by his mother who lived vicariously through his triumph, and, to the rulers, he was a symbol of strength in averting any future threat to the security of their land. After his military success, Coriolanus was urged to take up politics by the rulers and by his mother. He was expected to relocate his ‘inner strength’ from military prowess to political acumen – a misrepresentation of the notion of strength for political expedience. And, therein was the rub.

Pressure was put on the reluctant soldier ‘to don the gown of humility and present his wounds to the people’, and woo them for votes. But Coriolanus was reluctant. “It is a part/ That I shall blush in acting [2.2.144-5]. “’Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me/False to my nature? Rather say I play/The man I am” [3.2.14-16] “You have put me to such a part which never/I shall discharge to th’ life” [3.2.105-106]. His mother, Volumina suggested, “Seem/ The same you are not” – in other words, to put on an act!

Although Coriolanus preferred to keep his honour and his principle together as a soldier and defend his homeland, he succumbed to the pressure from his family and the rulers. He reluctantly took up politics and alienated the public due to his obstinacy. They rescinded their vote, and is banished from Rome. He became vengeful and unpatriotic and was ultimately destroyed.

Despite its simple narrative, the play Coriolanus is about politics, politicians and ‘policy’. It is about the pressure placed upon a politician to project himself as what he is not.

Coriolanus was expected to present his ‘policy’ [principles of governance] in which political expediency was to be placed above morality, with the use of craft and deceit to gain power, in a Machiavellian sense. He defied all such pressures and wished to be true to himself. His personal choice of truth was put to death and was carried away in a coffin.

Power and Privileges in Politics

An ageing ruler wishing to cling on to power and privileges despite his failing health is not an uncommon scenario in political circles, greed being at the heart of such motivation. Such a scenario was given dramatic expression by Shakespeare in his play the tragedy of KING LEAR. Lear, a legendary ruler of Britain, thought to be a man of ‘knowledge and reason’, transferred his sovereignty to his progeny contingent upon the expressiveness of their love towards him, with no intension of relinquishing his authority and privileges. He commands that Britain be divided equally between his two elder daughters [and their respective husbands] but with the condition that they accommodate him in turn along with his entourage of hundred knights. Having taken over the reign, the two daughters treat their father with disdain, refusing to fulfil their commitments.

Stripped off his sovereignty, the old monarch is reduced to madness and beggary, failing to negotiate between the polarities of ‘integrity’ in the face of diminishment and despair. He ends up in a ‘desolate field’ in a ‘raging storm’ accompanied by his court jester, ‘the fool’, with a corrective satire. The fool quips, “Thou shoudst not have been old before you hadst been wise”!

Regime Change

Regime change is a favourite theme in the Shakespeare canon. Abdication, abandonment, usurpation, military overthrow, political upheaval and even assassination are some of the common circumstances that are given dramatic expression by the bard. One of the most popular narrative poems by Shakespeare which culminates in a significant regime change, which I hope to present in an allegorical sense, is the ‘RAPE of LUCRECE’.

Drawn from a story by the Roman Historian Livy, the poem wrings pathos from the hapless exposure of Lucrece, a woman of exceptional beauty and virtue [which I equate to my motherland] to rape by a member of the ruling class. She laments: “My honey lost, and I, a drone like bee/ Have no perfection of my summer left/ But robb’d and ransack’d by injurious theft/ In thy weak hive a wand’ring wasp hath crept/ And suck’d the honey which thy chaste bee kept”.

Enraged by the assault on this ‘incomparable woman of worth’, the masses pour out into the streets of Rome, carrying her body, demanding to avenge her death and to overthrow the regime. By public acclaim the ruling monarchs were rooted out and political power handed over to people of their choice.

Moral Enhancement Away from the Precincts of Power

Often referred to as the pastoral drama, Shakespeare’s ‘AS YOU LIKE IT’ unfolds in a rural setting close to nature – the Forest of Arden – the domain of simple folk, the shepherds, far removed from the brutal precincts of power where politicians prowl. Duke Senior, banished from court by his brother, Duke Frederick, takes refuge in the forest with several of his faithful followers, to be purified and returned to where they came from, or to be retained in the wilderness! To be interpreted allegorically, the Forest of Arden acts as a milieu for purification and regeneration, and for redemption and restoration of order. It is a great leveller where the corrupt and ambitious rulers are brought together with the simple but honest folk with basic needs, living close to nature, to instil a sense of moral wisdom. ‘Then there is mirth in heaven/ when earthly things made even’. [Hymen]

Five years before his death, Shakespeare bid farewell to the stage having written his last solo-authored play, The TEMPEST, thought to be his parting song, with a complex allegory, open to a variety of interpretations. To me, it conveys a lesson in moral enhancement to those who occupy positions of power.

Shakespeare transforms the stage to a ‘desolate island’ somewhere in the Mediterranean, and places his leading character Prospero to use his ‘magical art’ to combat his inner turmoil.

Prospero [‘the one who prospers’] has once been the Duke of Milan, a learned man constantly in pursuit of further study of ‘liberal arts/ without a parallel’ dedicated to ‘closeness and bettering the mind’. For him the ‘library was dukedom large enough’ and was so immersed in his books that his brother, Antonio, found it easy to depose him and grab power. Prospero with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, was set adrift on the open sea in a boat with neither sail nor mast. Carrying a few provisions and some of his prized books, thrown in by Gonzalo, a kindly courtier, they drifted at the mercy of wave and tide, finally to be deposited on the shores of an island.

Living with his daughter in a cave in the island, part of which converted to his study, Prospero was in pursuit of bettering his mind through the study of ‘liberal arts’ – the art of inculcating wisdom, virtue and ethical practice, and the art of respectful dialogue – many a bibliophile is unable to achieve!

To cut a long story short, Prospero mobilises the services of Ariel, the winged spirit, to conjure up a storm that wrecks a passing ship and disperse its distraught passengers around the island, while ensuring their safety. The passengers happened to include his usurper and his fellow conspirators, giving Prospero the opportunity to exercise his compassion and forgiveness over vengeance, to bring about reconciliation, and to let go of power and possession.

‘King Becoming Graces’

Following the damnation of Macbeth, in the play by the same name, Macduff requests Malcolm, the new monarch, to outline what he believes to be ‘king becoming graces’. Malcolm enumerates them as, ‘justice, verity, stableness/ Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness/ Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude’, admitting that he has ‘no relish of them’, but adds, ‘Nay, had I power, I should/ Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell/ Uproar the universal peace, confound/ All unity on earth’. A tall order!

Conclusion

The ancient Greeks, the lettered race, pioneered the notion of tragedy. Despite the hardship and agony caused by a tragic experience, they recognised its potential in bringing about a moral order – evil is beaten back, and truth emerges with the restoration of peace and harmony. The religious faith of Shakespeare is subject to conjecture, but the central moral principle – justice, redemption and grace – embedded in many of his tragedies, may guide us move from darkness to light, whichever faith we belong to.

Source Material

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [The Alexander Text] Introduced by Peter Ackroyd [2010] Collins

New Statesman April 22-28, 2016. “Shakespeare 400 Years Later”

Bell, John 2022: Boyer Lecture: “Order versus Chaos”. Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio

Galhenage, Siri: 2020: “Shakespeare and the Human Condition”. S. Godage & Brothers [Pvt] Ltd.

Galhenage, Siri: “A Window to a Literary Landscape” [in manuscript]

[sirigalhenage@gmail.com]

http://island.lk/inaugural-ndc-symposium-focus-on-contemporary-security-issues/ Focus on contemporary security issues – The Island

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