Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Subversion and Containment

In his essay, "Invisible Bullets," Stephen Greenblatt tests a theory of political (and theatrical) power, namely, that a system of power will both create and contain the seeds to its own destruction.

It's sort of Derridean in nature--instead of language that both signifies meaning and undermines meaning, we have systems of control that both enact power and undermine power. My tendency here is to begin spouting off words like "hegemony" and "social coercion" (and really, I'm well on my way by using "Derridean") but I'm going to try, instead, to summarize simply to make sure that I really understand what the hell I'm talking about.

Greenblatt begins by explaining the "totalizing" nature of Elizabethan England--that the queen was seen to have total control of the well-being of the nation and its subjects, and that God was seen to have to have total control of all, the queen included. Questioning these assumptions was either treason or atheism, and sometimes both. But such questioning wasn't impossible, especially if one had read Machiavelli, who challenges the absolute nature of both political and religious power. Politicians were not divinely ordained or naturally gifted with leadership; they were swift, cunning, and ruthless manipulators of image and word. Actually vulnerable in countless ways, they represented themselves as all-powerful and their subjects (most of them) accepted this idea (most of it) and believed it (most of the time).

According to Machiavelli, religion works the same way. By claiming all power and ultimate truthiness, and manipulating images and events to reflect these claims, religion gains control over the masses. Marx claimed this too, later on.

So, Greenblatt uses Thomas Harriot's 1588 book about the English colonists experiences with the Algonquin Indians in America, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia to come up with a way that systems create and contain subversive energies. Harriot's report discusses in detail the ways in which the Algonquins understood the newcomers (as gods, as representatives of God, as bearers of technology which was miraculous, as harbingers of disaster which was divinely ordained) and the ways in which the colonists turned those understandings to their own benefit and to increase their own power. Harriot does not make explicit the ways in which this encounter between two civilizations brings into question the assumptions of total power that the Elizabethans had been working on. Greenblatt, though, reads the report as an account of a "test" of Machiavellian theories of power, one which exposes the fact that the absolute power of the queen and of God are contingent upon tricks and deliberate misunderstandings of phenomena. He systematizes this test into three phases: testing, recording, and explaining.

All of this is to work up to a reading of the Chronicles of Prince Hal--$hakespeare's 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. These plays, Greenblatt says, show Prince Hal creating and managing his power out of the very elements that threaten to undermine it--"glorified . . .theft," betrayal, and violence. These elements put Hal on the throne, through the theft of Richard II's throne by Hal's father Bolingbroke; through Hal's betrayal of his friends Bardolph and Pistol and his most adoring (and adored, by us) friend Falstaff; through Hal's counterfeiting of a new glorious kingly self out of the dross of the old drinking, wenching self; and through Hal's allowed violence towards his own low-life citizens ("food for powder") and enacted violence towards the armies of France on the fields of Agincourt.

Each of these elements, subversive because they illustrate how Hal's power is not merited or ordained, but constructed and manipulated, is contained by an interpretation in which Hal is a good guy. As for Richard II, Bolingbroke took the throne because the people willed it; and besides, Hal has reinterred the corpse and paid five hundred poor to pray for Richard's soul twice daily. As for betraying his friends, the king of England could no longer act the fool anymore by wasting his time and money with thieves; besides, he had to show justice to everyone and not favoritism to criminals who happened to be old cronies. As for counterfeiting his new self, isn't everything a performance? Is there really a "true self" anyways? And as for the violence at Agincourt, God willed it and God saved the day for the righteous, deserving English.

Greenblatt doesn't provide examples of testing in these plays--perhaps the plays themselves are tests--but he discusses how the alien voices of the oppressed and subversive are recorded in the plays: in the characters of Falstaff, Pistol, and Bardolph; in the tapster Francis with his repeated "Anon"; in the "discarded unjust servingmen, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters, and ostlers trade-fall'n" who serves as cannon-fodder to quell the rebellion against Bolingbroke; in the deliberately grotesque portrayals of Welsh Fluellen, Irish Macmorris, and Scottish Jamy; and in the voices of the soon-to-be-conquered French. These voices, and the individual experiences they represent, call out like the voices of the dead, implicity rebuking Hal and the Bolingbroke claim to power.

He also provides examples of explaining in the plays: Hal's declaration that he will "falsify men's hopes" by proving better than his word; his stated intention to be a "sworn brother to a leash of drawers" who will, when he is king, "command all the good lads in Eastcheap"; Warwick's assurance to Henry IV that Hal studies his companions only to turn them into "a pattern" to reject later; Hal's insistence to himself that the burden of kingship is heavier than any that the poor carry, and that the poor sleep while he, the king, stays awake to watch; and that the English defeat the socially superior French because of English moral superiority.

Good quotes:

"The colonial power produced subversiveness in its own interest" (33).
"Theatricality, then, is not set over against power but is one of power's essential modes" (46).
"The "larger order" of Lancastrian state in this play seems to batten on the breaking of oaths" (52).
"That authority, as the play defines it, is precisely the ability to betray one's friends without stain" (58).
"The ideal king must be in large part the invention of the audience, the product of a will to conquer that is revealed to be identical to the need to submit" (63). (I don't get this one but I think it's important)
"What is for the state a mode of subversion contained can be for the theater a mode of containment subverted . . . " (65).
"Princely power originates in force and fraud even as they draw their audience toward an acceptance of that power" (65).

Greenblatt says that betrayals happen both to and for Prince Hal, much like the rogue in Middleton's comedies who cozens other and himself. Later, Greenblatt talks about an upper-class betrayal of the lower-class in order to eradicate it, which reminded me of Heller's argument that Middleton's cozening plays can still be moral, because the villain deserves his treatment because of his past crimes.

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