Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Brief Unpacking And Examination Of Corruption And Nationalism Through The Shakespearean Plays: Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, And Troilus & Cressida.

Christopher F. Brown
Prof. Chris Weidenbach
English 017 / Shakespeare

A Brief Unpacking And Examination Of Corruption And Nationalism Through The Shakespearean Plays: Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, And Troilus & Cressida.

In a paper about the play, “Julius Caesar” I wrote that “Julius Caesar,” “. . . is a message of warning against, and commentary about nationalism.” The underlying themes of, commentaries about, Nationalism and Corruption are also very present in the plays: MacBeth, Othello, and Troilus & Cressida. The ideology of Nationalism is defined by Merriam Webster’s on-line dictionary as, “Loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially: a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of the culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” Corruption is, defined, again defined by Merriam Webster’s on-line dictionary, as “Impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle: depravity, decay, decomposition, inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (as bribery) a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.”

In the play, “Othello” the character of Othello is constantly referred to as “The Moor.” On the surface, this is just a term that lets the reader know that Othello is of North African descent, and possible a Muslim, Shakespeare never directly writes such in the play but it is inferred as such. If this is examined further, the slight of subtle Nationalism can be seen in Act 1, Scene 1, lines 105-110; Act 1, Scene 1 lines 127-134, and Act 1, Scene 2, lines 7-28. Iago, in a clear example of corruption,  and a subtle swipe of the negative aspects of Nationalism tries to convince Brabantio that it was a highly negative thing that Othello be married to his daughter, says,

Zounds, sir, you are on of those that will not serve God if the devil bid you. Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans.

-- Othello,  Act 1, Scene 1, lines 105-110

All of that simply means that Othello is a Moor, an outsider, not a Venetian. If you let him, Othello, the Barbary horse, which is a breed of Arabian horse and a derogatory term for a Moor, have your daughter your descendants, meant by nephews, will neigh to you, meaning that your descendants will be part beast. A courser is another horse, particularly, a fast warhorse used in medieval Europe, again making bestial references. A “genney” is an old English/Shakespearean term for “Jenny” which is a Spanish Donkey. Shakespeare uses the term “German” in the sense of the old English/Shakespearean usage which meant cousins, as in having the same grandparents on ones mother’s or father’s side of the family. Iago is not only being racist on the surface but is inferring that Othello might also have some Spanish blood in him as well. If Brabantio lets Othello have his daughter then the Spanish Donkeys, the “Gennys” will become apart of Brabantio family, appealing to the subtle draw of Venetian nationalism in that in medieval Europe, as well as in some places in modern Europe, Spain is known as a part of Europe and has European culture, but unspokenly, Spain has been looked down upon by other Europeans as other, not “truly” European. Iago is appealing to the nationalistic side of Brabantio in order to corrupt him against Othello.

One of the doctrines of Nationalism is the national purity of it’s citizens. The citizens of nation “A” should seek to procreate with other citizens of nation “A.” The procreation between citizens of nation, “A” with citizens of nation, “B” is only to be done sparingly, and only when it serves to benefit the nations that could not be had otherwise. In the case of Othello and Desdemona, they eloped without regard for proper protocol, without regard for the rules and regulations of high society, of the nation, of Venice. Roderigo under the corrupting influence of Iago in a plot to gain Desdemona for himself says to Brabantio in Act 1, Scene 1 lines 127-134,

Do not believe that from the sense of all civility I thus would play and trifle with your reverence. Your daughter, if you have not given her leave, I say again, hath made a gross revolt, tying her duty, beauty, with, and fortunes in extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere. straight satisfy yourself.

-- Othello, Act 1, Scene 1 lines 127-134

again giving nod to the same subtle usage of Nationalism and pointing out how he, Othello is an outsider, stating Othello is an, “extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere” is in a sense, saying to Brabantio that Desdemona has thrown away her, “duty, beauty, with, and fortunes” on a wandering nobody. This attempt is a direct appeal to Brabantio’s sense of nationalistic pride, and is using Nationalism here as a corrupting tool.

In the first part of  Act 1, Scene 2 Iago attempts to corrupt Othello against the Venetian aristocracy by telling him how horribly they spoke of him and how much harm they could do to him. Iago tells Othello how Brabantio is loved by the people and holds much influence and power beyond his rank. Iago plays on subtle Nationalistic notions and points out to Othello how Othello is once again considered an outsider. In Act 1, Scene 2, lines 17-28 Othello responds by saying,

Let him do his spite. My services which I have done the Signiory shall out-tongue his complaints. ‘tis yet to know which when I know that boasting is an honor I shall promulgate – I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege, and my demerits may speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune as this that I have reached. for know, Iago, but that I love the gentile Desdemona, put into circumscription and confine for the seas’ worth. but lights come yond?

Othello is forced to appeal to the ideology of Nationalism as being a servant of the nationalism of Venice, not a challenger. Othello is forced into a political Goldilocks paradigm. Othello can never be a fully accepted member of the nation, of Venice, yet if in good faith he marries into a high standing family as he did, although not for political purposes but actual love, and gives of himself at a high level of servitude as he did, he is not met with the full negative forces of being and outsider of the nation. Othello, for now, is left unassaulted, but not bruised, by Iago’s and Roderigo’s attempts to use the ideology of Nationalism against Othello, yet everyone has been fully induced into the initial stages of corruption Iago has planted.

This is as blatant as is the ideology of Nationalism is present in the play, “Othello.” In the play, “MacBeth” or “The Scottish Play,” Nationalism and Corruption are more present. Through prophecy and persuasion an increasingly corrupt MacBeth positions himself to gain the crown of Scotland. In “MacBeth," as with medieval other European monarchies, the idea is that the King (in the historical case of England and Spain, Queen) is the state/nation and serving the will of the King is serving the will of the state/nation. The conflict arises in, “MacBeth” when three witches tell MacBeth he will be King, as well as telling his good friend and fellow soldier Banquo, he will spawn a line of Kings. In the monarchical system of medieval Europe, there can only be one ruling King and typically that King’s children are the ones that inherit the thrown. The conflict is increased by the fact that neither of the men are in line to be King and there is already a reigning monarch at the start of the play.

“MacBeth,” speaks to the notion of how a spark ambition and what one is willing to do to accomplish the goals of ambition can turn one to corruption and using Nationalism as part of an arsenal of corrupting tools.  MacBeth’s wife fully embraces the corrupting notions of being a Queen, a head of state, when she receives MacBeth’s letter speaking of the prophecy foretold by the witches. Lady MacBeth pledges herself to do whatever she could to make the prophecy come true. As I wrote in another paper, the corruption of MacBeth has taken full effect and MacBeth goes, “. . .from a true nobleman with a heart and a sense of loyalty, duty, and a very present conscious to, by the time Lady MacBeth kills herself, a very heartless, cold, and power hungry man.” After MacBeth has killed Duncan, the rightful King of Scotland, and causes Malcolm and Donalbain, Duncan’s sons, to have fled to England, killed Banquo,  MacBeth then uses the guise of Nationalism, the will of the King as being good for, and the will of the kingdom, to cause MacDuff to flee Scotland as a traitor and then have his killed his family.

There are a select few that are willing to speak aloud, although not to his face, that all are not fully swept away in the new Nationalistic fever of praising MacBeth. In Act 3, Scene 4, lines 1-38 Lennox and Another random lord have a conversation amongst themselves, where they speak of the killing of Duncan, the fleeing of Malcolm, Donalbain, and McDuff, and openly refer to MacBeth as a tyrant. This conversation is Shakespeare's way of telling the reader that all have not fully fallen under the persuasion of MacBeth’s unrightfull implantation of himself as being the head of the nation and therefore setting the stage for conflict between MacBeth’s brand of Nationalism and the version that others whom are not loyal to MacBeth subscribe hold. If the reader fully undertakes analysis of  “MacBeth,” it is inferred that, Duncan the King of Scotland, has recently become so at the onset of “MacBeth” by having won a battle ousting the Thane of Cawdor and making MacBeth the new Thane. This notion is important because it plays against the theme of Nationalism and Corruption. If the reader is to assume that Duncan was a conquering force upon Scotland then his legitimacy to the throne of Scotland is only such because he took it by force. If this is true then it makes those loyal to Duncan, loyal to Malcolm, Donalbain, and McDuff no different than MacBeth. When reading “MacBeth,” the reader views MacBeth as a traitor and villain because he does not subscribe to the nationalistic ideology that has Duncan as head of state and corrupt for envisioning himself as head of state but factually Duncan, just as MacBeth, used Nationalism as a tool to establish himself as rightful monarch only more effectively having had other still loyal to him after his death and only having MacBeth revolt against him during his reign. It is because of MacBeth’s and Lady MacBeth’s ready willingness to pursue perceived corruption to supplant Duncan and implant themselves as head of state and then their latter succumbing to insanity, that reader views MacBeth’s and Lady MacBeth’s actions as corrupt when maybe, their actions might have been the very same as some of the actions of Duncan’s past.    

The message of Nationalistic legitimacy is the opposite, yet  in some ways similar to the Nationalistic warning found in the play “Julius Caesar.” Cesar is already established as the head of state, of Rome, and the vast majority of Romans accept his legitimacy. There are some; however that when put under pressure and have a bit of cajoling applied to them, come to believe that Caesar is no longer serving the interest of the people of Rome or Rome its self but their own. Rome being a republic at this time, there is no unquestioned ruler, the ruler has to answer to the senate and even though we like to believe the senate represented the people, it did not. The senate of ancient Rome represented the interests the Roman aristocracy. Brutus is one man, of the aristocracy, that is different from rest in that he truly does believe in doing what is right for the people of Rome. In a paper about, “Julius Caesar” I wrote, “. . . it was not jealousy that caused Brutus to act. The love of Rome, the love of country and state, caused Brutus to kill the man [Caesar] he also claimed to love.”

In, “Julius Caesar” the juxtaposition between the ideals of Nationalism are found. The one ideal in MacBeth were the King is the nation and the ideal found in more modern times where the people of the state, not just its head, are the state, are present. Brutus comes to reason that for the good of the nation, the good of Rome, to keep the established tenets of the latter ideals of Nationalism going not for personal gain, he must kill Caesar. This killing of Cesar, his dear friend, ultimately leads to his own death as well as Cesar’s, but Brutus believed that his death would be a small price to pay if the Nation, if Rome, would not be left in the hands of Caesar. Which Brutus perceived to be now and ultimately growing more corrupt. Brutus makes a mistake in believing that Mark Anthony poses no threat to his beloved Rome, and certainly not the threat present and perceived real threat in Caesar.

The welfare of the nation of Rome and the corruption of Caesar is the focus of “Julius Caesar” whereas “Troilus & Cressida” draws on strains of Nationalism similar to that of MacBeth. The leaders and heroes of the Nations act in a manner that they say is best for the nations but like “MacBeth” the people and even some of the nobility realize that the war between the Greeks and Trojans is not something that benefits them but only serves to benefit to a very tragic detriment, the egos and pride of the various aristocrats, heroes, princes, and Kings involved. Another lesson of “Troilus & Cressida” is that if the will of the people is not supported by the rulers then it is no longer a republic but a vastly corrupt dictatorship and the people are non-entities of the nation and Nationalism is only lip service used by the nobility on a people that do not know any better or can do nothing about it.

In these four plays Shakespeare examines Nationalism and corruption vaguely to very overtly and the effects on the leaders, would be leaders, participants and the average citizen of a nation. Nationalism, can be used as a tool unite a people, to rally them and throw off the shackles of oppression. Nationalism can also be misused by the leaders to only further themselves or their interests, all under the guise of being good for the nation. When this happens, or is revealed as having had happen, corruption has been in play, and eventually will take down the leader or person that is corrupt. Unlike the nicely well wrapped plays of Shakespeare, history shows us corrupt officials and people in power take time and blood to be toppled. In these plays Shakespeare gives the reader, and subsequently the viewer of the plays, a glimpse of the ideology that is Nationalism and Corruption as a doubled edge sword. If the wielder of that sword is not careful the wielder could find themselves on the receiving edge and the cut meant for someone else is the blow that brings them down.  


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