Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Men/Are as the time is

I was teaching King Lear today, which was hugely enjoyable. The group was talkative and quick to grasp the thornier conundrums (conundra?) raised by the play, though we didn't do much on the classic linguistic/poetical issues.

What we focused on was the kind of universe envisioned by the various characters. To some, it's a Epicurean-Lucretian-humanist world in which (as Edmund says) the stars and the gods do not intervene. To others, it's a humanist-individualist world in which individuals make their own way over the blasted, storm-tossed heath that is life. A third position is that duty, temporarily set aside by those who should understand it (Lear) is restored after its source has been recognised and atonement made. Poor Cordelia, who knows all along yet still dies.

You can understand why Shakespeare's successors hated it: Cordelia's death implies that - despite Noel Edmonds' weirdo claims - there isn't a system of cosmic justice. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people, and God's not going to turn up and make everything right again. Hence Nahum Tate's version with the happy ending (you know him: he wrote 'While shepherds watched their flocks by night' to which we've all sung hilarious alternative words).

This leads to the final point, the one implied by the title of this post. The despairing lament is that we behave as badly as the time, which I take to mean the moral and social context. A general decay leads to individual dishonour. Perhaps this is why Liam Fox won't resign: why should he individually pay for a minor role in the wider social failure which sees bankers paid billions to turn us to beggars, politicians enrich themselves at our expense, youths take a violent short-cut to material riches?

It's a seductive view, and a common one: the basis of Conservatism is that without restraint, humans will always tend towards selfish individualism, and that the last-age-but-one was Golden. I don't subscribe to it myself, despite the occasionally Eeyore-ish pronouncements you might see here. I tend to think - anarchistically - that removed from hegemonic control, most people are altruistic: just look at the nicer bits of the web, where public data analysis is performed by thousands of geeks, where technical help is always a Tweet away. But I do think that the corrosive effect of the Tories' hatred of government per se has led to corruption on an individual level and on the level of the political class. Like Lear, they take the prestige and the private advantages while publicly decrying the notion of government as a duty and as a public good. Arriving with all the advantages of private wealth and social capital (the same goes for Berlusconi), they can only conceive of government as either oppressing them or enriching them: those of us who have benefitted from the state (education, healthcare etc.) have very different relationships with it. We're Edgar and the Fool - and we're being locked out onto the blasted heath for good.

See? Shakespeare's still got a lot to say, kids!

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