Shakespeare - Richard II
WE live in a time with little sense of history and scant respect for the future. Like a generation late in the decline of the Roman Empire, we give no thought to the value of what we destroy, be it rainforest or welfare state.
Not surprisingly, the movement that would dispense with the monarchy has gathered momentum in defiance of history and in response only to such short-term minutiae as a broken marriage, a whiff of sexual scandal and the cost to the taxpayer of repairing fire damage - items which will not merit even a footnote in a 20th-century chronicle.
The American president held in highest regard, John F Kennedy, behaved adulterously and was almost as fond of deletable expletives as Richard Nixon, the most reviled. Had 'investigative' journalism been let off the leash a few years earlier, Kennedy's image would have been massively dented. Would anybody have been better off to have had their respect for man and office diminished? Not while we expect super-humanity from our leaders.
History repeatedly catalogues monarchs, presidents and religious leaders of every nationality and persuasion who have been shown to be fallible, and yet we continue to expect authority figures to be capable of withstanding any degree of moral scrutiny. The private and often public behaviour of a large majority of English kings could not have survived a Sunday Times 'Insight' inquiry or a Sun front page.
Revelations about Edward II's gay proclivities, Henry VIII's syphilitic womanising, George IV's sexual and moral corruption, or Edward VII's obsessive adulteries would make the current peccadilloes seem unimaginably trivial.
Shakespeare was plainly unimpressed by the official line justifying the legality of the Tudor dynasty. His analysis of the monarchy through 100 years of internecine struggle shows Divine Right turning into self-destructive excess and the baronial claimants becoming cynical manipulators. But what emerges from the plays is that, beyond being the target of personal ambition, the Crown has a unifying meaning and, at times, an actual unifying effect.
The women, as in everything else to do with the upholding of values, have done much better than the men. Queen Elizabeth, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria each inspired periods of national self-confidence. To a far greater extent than any prime minister, Elizabeth II has provided continuity and focus during 40 years of considerable social change. And, in all that time, nobody has found a scintilla of a misdemeanour.
But not only is there no good reason for making any substantial redefinition of the monarchy, the alternatives most often promulgated are plain awful. Having revealed human flaw and misjudgement in some members of our presently constituted Royal Family, what would our garbage-raking press do with a 'Scandinavian'-style monarchy, divested of both privacy and privilege? It would hound, insult, provoke and humiliate until all dignity and meaning had gone.
Given a republican scenario, the president to whom the judiciary, the police and democratic parliamentary institutions would be responsible would have to be above party political bias; and, as an individual unable to call on traditional trust or acceptance, would have to be totally stainless in family background, marital history, financial involvement and private behaviour. Some chance.
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare shows us a man respected for his probity falling, through sexual obsession, into a pit of criminal desperation. But when he is exposed, when the judge is judged, he is pardoned. Shakespeare would have us learn that not only is authority human, with all the weakness that implies, but that justice, too, must be human if we are to live in balance; we yearn for moral example, but we must be forgiving when we find that our leaders are human.
Future generations will be grateful if we consult our history and keep this temporary problem of confidence in perspective.
The author is Director Emeritus of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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