April 2014        

Shakespeare at 450:
An undiminished message

This month we celebrate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare. When Shakespeare wrote his great tragedies—yes, the ones studied at school, year in, year out—he had a very great and grave concern at heart. He wanted to warn his audiences of the utterly destructive, dangerous and devastating Machiavellian man: the person who will walk over dead bodies to achieve power.
      In Hamlet, the prince educated at Wittenberg in the humanist tradition finds himself in mortal battle with the Machiavellian Claudius, who has used deception and murder to gain the throne.
      In Othello, the Machiavellian Iago sets out to deliberately destroy Othello and is cynical about all human values, including life itself.
      In King Lear, Machiavellian cynicism about humanity and greed for power leads to madness and death.
      In Macbeth, greed for power results in a river of blood.
      With the qualified exception of Macbeth, some characters in the plays embody the Machiavellian types; others represent humanist values, or older feudal values that are unprepared for the Machiavellian. They clash, and ultimately the Machiavellian is the root cause of death and destruction.
      In Macbeth the struggle is also fought within Macbeth himself, who has retained a sense of humanity, which he increasingly suppresses until he is capable of murder without shame in his pursuit of power.
      In Shakespeare’s day it was possible for the writer to have an optimistic vision, in that—although the tragic hero dies—there is a sense of good eventually gaining the upper hand once more. When we read or watch these tragedies today it is the Machiavellian characters that seem terrifyingly modern. Yes, Claudius, Iago, Edmund, Goneril and Regan are people we can understand immediately, who could be taken straight from the twenty-first century. Their opportunism, cynicism and readiness for murder have become our zeitgeist.
      The Macbeths seem a little old-fashioned, in that they have qualms about their actions, so that they end up either mad or feeling that life has no meaning. Macbeth—unlike the Machiavellians of today—is haunted by the ghost of his victim. Lady Macbeth goes mad even though she herself commits no murder but “only” supports her husband, the actual murderer. So she is keenly aware, at a subconscious level, that aiding and abetting in death and destruction leaves her too with blood on her hands.
      Shakespeare saw this evolving four hundred years ago. It has happened. Our own Machiavellians continue to wade through the river of blood in their pursuit of power. They do not even have the decency to go mad.

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