Machiavellian Politics and the Idol Ceremony
November 20, 2013

Shakespeare wrote two tetrologies of English history, patriotically celebrating the Tudor monarchy by recounting its chaotic prehistory. Read in chronological order, Shakespeare’s English histories trace the depressing collapse of medieval politics, from the ineffectual but dignified medieval kingdom of Richard II, through the usurpation of Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, the reign of Henry V, through the chaos of the Wars of the Roses.

The tetrologies reach their climax with the self-conscious Machiavel, Richard III, who is, by his own testimony, willing to do anything to gain the crown: "Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,” he says, adding that he plans to “Deceive more slily than Ulysses could, / And, like a Sinon, take another Troy. / I can add colours to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school” (Henry VI, Part II, 3. 2).

In the English tetrologies, Shakespeare dramatizes political history as a history of ceremony.  As Southern Methodist University’s Timothy Rosendale has written of Richard II, for medieval kings “signs are directly equivalent to their referents: the crown is kingly authority; his name is a standing army. There is no sense of slippage or potential dissociation between signifier and signified.” This political theology is closely allied with the Catholic theology of transubstantiation, which identifies the “sign” of bread and wine with the “thing” of the body and blood of Jesus.

A political philosophy formed on this basis “hinges on a similarly irrefragable and unproblematic identity of person, authority, and office.” Thus, for the medieval king Richard II, “kingship is not conditional, but immutable and divinely ordained, and his authority as king is absolute (and absolutely contained in his person).” Incompetence, repeated defeat in battle, failure to do justice, moral impropriety – none of that matters, so long as the king has been sanctified by the sacred oil. What gives Richard II his kingship is the “balm” of the royal anointing, which cannot be washed away with “all the water in the rough rude sea” (Richard II 3.2.54-55).

Henry Bolingbroke cannot appeal to his anointing to buttress his crown for the simple reason that he wasn’t anointed. Worse, he killed the anointed one. Shakespeare’s tetrologies examine the political impact of this disruption: Once medieval sacramental theology is shattered, what’s the basis of political authority? How is a king to be a king when his royal anointing is no longer believed to fill him with sanctity and divine power?

One option, of course, is the secular one: Send the sacrament back to church where it belongs, and leave politics to the realists. Political authority arises from sheer naked power, or the consent of the governed, or is built up from purely natural foundation, but it has nothing to do with the magic of ceremony. This secular alternative to sacral politics is the majority modern option, but in Shakespeare it is the option pursued by the villain Richard III.

Henry V is more Shakespeare’s speed. He does have his Machiavellian side, and he does exploit spectacle and flout traditional ceremony. But Shakespeare presents in Henry the solution to the problem of political authority created by the destruction of medieval sacral politics, a solution that does not leave sacramental theology to the side offers an alternative sacramental theology.

Shakespeare’s political theology in Henry V is simultaneously a sacramental theology, but it is a Reformed rather than Catholic one. Instead of assuming, as Richard II does, an identity of sign and thing, Henry recognizes (anachronistically inspired by the Anglican Prayerbook of Shakespeare’s day) that ceremony is nothing, a sign, a fiction. Considering the burdens of kingship, the responsibility for his men, Henry ruminates on the fact that he is distinguished from “privates” only by “general ceremony,” by “idle [or, idol] ceremony.” And what has ceremony done for him? Not much. Contrary to medieval mythology, the king’s anointing does not give him power to cure: “Canst thou, when thou command’st the beggar’s knee, / Command the health of it?” None of the pomp, not the “balm, the sceptre and the ball,/ The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,/ The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,/The farced title running ‘fore the king,/ The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp/ That beats upon the high shore of this world,” not all this “thrice-gorgeous ceremony” can give him anything but sleepless nights. Ceremonies are not guarantees. Ceremonies impose demands just as much as they give assurances; they only assure insofar as the demands are fulfilled.

Yet, Henry simultaneously recognizes that the fictional sign is the creative source of political and social order, the basis of his kingliness. Henry knows both the fictionality of ceremony, and its power. As Rosendale puts it, “To Hal, the ‘ceremony’ that distinguishes king from subjects is primarily a convergence of signs (‘place, degree, and form’ as well as the itemized catalogue he proceeds to give). Though this symbolic order of difference has no inherent power – a recognition unimaginable for Richard II – it unmistakably does matter, creating not only ‘awe and fear,’ but also, in turn, royal authority and the entire sociopolitical order.”

Shakespeare’s plays speak to nearly every major public issue of his day, and in this case the issues of Tudor and Stuart England are our issues. Sacral politics is gone, and few wish to revive it.  Politically, we are all Protestants now. Detached from the ceremony of anointing and its accompanying standards, political power has the potential to end in secular Machiavellianism, and the past three centuries have seen hundreds of Richards more vicious and ambitious than Shakespeare could have imagined, all equipped with mechanisms of image and manipulation that would have caused Machiavelli to salivate.

Post-sacral politics need not end in secularity of the naked public square. Elizabethans would approve the American tradition of Presidents swearing their oaths of office on an open Bible, or adorning public places with crèches and Mosaic tablets. Shakespeare’s plays suggest that without such ceremony political power collapses to tyranny, as it looses itself from the public standards of judgment and accountability that ceremony offers. “Idol” ceremony, however ineffectual in itself, is far from idle.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House. This essay was first published in CredendaAgenda in 2010.

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