January 23, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different...

The literary gods have had mercy upon my poor soul and have sent a white knight to rescue me from the evil clutches of William Faulkner. My Spring classes have started and, while I am certain that should I be so inclined to I could find the time for good William, I simply have not managed to eek him back into my schedule.

Which means that I get to blog about something a little more upbeat than dreary and dreadfully long sentences: filicide!

Filicide is the act of a parent intentionally killing his/her child. Our good friend William (Shakespeare, not Faulkner) has several plays which feature filicide, probably the most obvious example being Titus Andronicus. Filicide is also featured in The Winter’s Tale (though Leontes does not actually manage to kill Perdita, he does try…) and perhaps our favorite Shakespearean foray into the macabre, Mr. and Mrs. Macers go to Scotland… otherwise known as Macbeth.

Bear with me for a moment, I promise this circles back to Scottish witches.

In a 1765 political pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (available here), John Adams speaks on (and debatably introduces) one of the most famous metaphors of the American Revolution: that of England as the mother country. He says, “Is there not something extremely fallacious in the common-place images of mother country and children colonies? Are we the children of Great Britain any more than the cities of London, Exeter, and Bath? Are we not brethren and fellow subjects with those in Britain, only under a somewhat different method of legislation, and a totally different method of taxation? But admitting we are children, have not children a right to complain when their parents are attempting to break their limbs, to administer poison, or to sell them to enemies for slaves? Let me entreat you to consider, will the mother be pleased when you represent her as deaf to the cries of her children, -- when you compare her to the infamous miscreant who lately stood on the gallows for starving her child, -- when you resemble her to Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare, (I cannot think of it without horror,) who…

‘Had given such, and knew How tender ‘t was to love the babe that milked her,’

“but yet, who could,

‘Even while ‘t was smiling in her face, have plucked her nipple from the boneless gums, and dashed the brains out.’ “

Oh ho Mister Adams. Well done, well done indeed.

I have not done extensive research on this subject (though trust me, I intend to- it’s on my “to-do” list along with Johnny Depp and getting a hobby that doesn’t involve libraries), but based upon the perfunctory looking-into I have done I will state that Shakespeare’s words have been used to back every side of every major political argument since just after the poor man died. Frequently in these instances, he is even misquoted- used by the rhetoricians in their time-honored tradition of bending the thoughts of others to their own means.

Now I don’t intend to go too deeply into this concept today, I will save that for when I have more to back my currently biased and unsubstantiated opinions. What I do want to point out is how seemingly random Mister Adams’ reference is.

The quote which Dear John pulls is perhaps the most debated line of Macbeth. It is the only reference to the pitter patter of small bloodthirsty Scottish feet in the play, neither MacB nor his Lady wife ever again mention their own progeny. Clearly there are no Macbeth children in the play, so if Lady M is telling the truth (and why should she not?) then she did have a child and something happened to it. Was it Macbeth’s? Was it a bastard child? How and when did it die? Is its death something which urged her to demand of the spirits to “Take my milke for Gall..” (I iv)? If she had had a child to tend to, would she still have been a murderous witch? These are questions we will never know the answers to, but directors and scholars will continue to debate them, making Adams’ quote one of the “hottest topics” of the Shakespearean cannon.

So John Adams uses the most famous line of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays in his pamphlet. Why?

Politicians invoke Shakespeare like they invoke a God. Shakespeare is a higher intellectual authority, a literary deity. You can no more trump Shakespeare than you can deny Barthes’ Eiffel Tower. Politicians bank on that. Invoking Shakespeare lends an intellectual superiority. “Not only do I understand him, but he is on my side”. It brings to the proverbial room a discomfort, what do you say to Shakespeare? You can’t rebut him, you can’t discredit him, the best you can hope for is to come back at him with another of his own set of words and hope it holds up in an epic battle with himself (much like this).

Perhaps what startled me the most about Mister Adams’ reference is that he is one of the greatest rhetoricians of history. Here he is, leaning upon the words of Shakespeare (not even unpacking them mind you, just sticking them in his pamphlet) to help him make a tangential point. This either means that Mister Adams recognized a tactic which works and made use of it, or he was just out of creative things to say that day. I’m going to put my money on the first one, but either way, John Adams could certainly have used some time to brush up on his Shakespeare. MacB is no more a play about filicide than Othello is a play about a handkerchief. In addition, I’m not entirely certain how comfortable I am with the metaphor of England as Lady M and the States as the otherwise-unmentioned MacBaby. Certainly we deserve more regard than a single line in passing. We are (and were even in 1765) a large political force. Perhaps Adams is invoking it to suggest that England neglects America just as Shakespeare neglects Baby MacB. They will give us no answers, they recognize us only as an allegory of their success in failure, and they sure as hell won’t admit to having us in polite company.

So kids, today’s moral (brought to you by our good friend the second president of the United States and the letter “S”) is: Shakespeare is your rhetorical buddy. Use his powers well and you too may someday aspire to political greatness.

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