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 read Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, where the perilously weak monarch competes 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 Edward is a pitiful creature, constantly pleading to be allowed the humble wishes of a private man in spite of his considerable public office.
Edward disrespects the church and spurns his queen while bestowing titles upon his beloved Gaveston. He spends lavishly on his chosen knave, until frivolity and inattention compromise the defence of the English borders.
The Lords’ umbrage against Gaveston is compelling.
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, Edward is on the run and Gaveston is 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 rear by a mercenary.
“This is Civil War”
The central challenge offered by the play is how to balance sympathies once 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 easily irredeemable. 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.
Where we place Edward in the contest of sinned versus sinner determines how the play is eventually received. Its ability to divide 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 backing Edward. He wasn’t suited for kingship, they reasoned, and wanted to live a life without the grave responsibilities of state.
By contrast, in another group, 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 leap, I realise. Nine months ago, my last chance to teach appeared to have gone.
Yet, space became available to teach on the first-year Renaissance Drama module here at Leicester, complete with lectures, exams, and all. It’s a valuable opportunity.
Leicester is up to 15 for English this year, according to Guardian tables. It’s a high-calibre environment to be in, and to be teaching Shakespeare again is quite remarkable.
It’s not the easiest marriage alongside my day job, but the pace and intensity of term time generates 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.