Mischief doesn’t hide itself away in a hurry. I recently tried instigating civil war during my seminar groups here at Leicester (thankfully not among them – that may come later), and the results were rather striking.
Earlier in the term, we had been reading Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, where the perilously weak monarch is shown to compete against a rising tide of dissention from the nobility.
Unlike the compelling Richard III, whose rhetorical mastery allows him to manipulate almost any scene to his favour, Marlowe’s eponymous Edward is a pitiful creature, constantly pleading to be allowed the humble wishes of a private man in spite of his considerable public office.
The Lords’ umbrage against Gaveston, the king’s favourite and apparent love interest, is compelling. Edward is shown to disrespect the church and spurn his Queen while bestowing titles upon his beloved Gaveston. He spends lavishly on his chosen knave, until frivolity and complete inattention eventually compromise the defence of the English borders.
Look for rebellion; look to be deposed.
Thy garrisons are beaten out of France,
And lame and poor lie groaning at the gates.
The wild O’Neill, with swarms of Irish kerns,
Lives uncontrolled within the English pale.
Unto the walls of York the Scots made road,
And, unresisted, drave away rich spoils.
Edward II, 2.2.160-166.
The prevailing power-play eventually frames itself into a chase between fox and hounds. By the third act of the play, Edward is on the run and Gaveston despatched. The sinister Mortimer Jnr embarks upon a Machiavellian route to power, complete with Queen Isabella and the young Edward, while the King ends up skewered through the bottom by a mercenary. (It’s what he would have wanted!)
The central challenge offered by the play is how to balance sympathies when civil war emerges. On the one hand, the central protagonist is a weak-willed, frivolous and distracted monarch with no sense of priority. His lack of authority makes him easy for an audience to dismiss. On the other lies a bunch of belligerent, scheming and power-hungry nobles, determined to micromanage the King’s private affairs and usurp his authority.
“This is Civil War”
Where Edward lines up in the contest of sinned versus sinner determines how the play is eventually received. And the ability for the play to command both sides of the spectrum here was evident when I prompted my class to litigate.
“This is civil war. Choose your side”, I said, “and argue your case in prosecution or defence”.
In one group, all but one found themselves in support of the King. He wasn’t suited for kingship, they reasoned, and wanted to live a life without the grave responsibilities of state.
Another group were diametrically opposed, as all but one found themselves in support of the nobles. Edward’s advisers were left with no choice but to act as they saw fit, the group determined.
The third group, as we might imagine, were more-or-less perfectly split down the middle, and it was here that the contest was most meaningfully fought.
Who said war was about religion, politics or finances? It begins with ideas, and it’s great fun planting small seeds into well-channelled minds every so often.
All this is quite a forward leap in time, I realise. Nine months ago, my last chance to teach appeared to have gone, and little time elapsed before I became rather fatalistic about it.
Now, thanks to research leave, space became available to teach on the first-year Renaissance Drama module here at Leicester, complete with lectures, exams, film-screenings and all.
It’s a valuable opportunity, even if only a brief one. The Guardian’s latest University Guide sees Leicester rise to 15th for English this year – twelve places higher than 2013. It’s a high-calibre environment to be in, and to be teaching Shakespeare again is quite remarkable.
It’s not proving an easy marriage alongside my day job, and the concurrent attempt to break the spine of a long-running illness is probably not helped by the propensity to accept any work that is offered.
But at the same time, the pace and intensity of term-time is generating more of a sense of purpose and offers less opportunity for reflection, which helps in its own way.
2014 could be a year of recovery and rediscovery, when I finally regain everything that was lost some years ago. It hasn’t been plain sailing, but the first two months have seen a lot of progress. And if it isn’t to be, it should not be for the want of trying.