Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Quote of the Day (William Shakespeare, on ‘Glory Smear'd in Dust and Blood’)

“These eyes, that now are dimm'd with death's black veil,
Have been as piercing as the mid-day sun,
To search the secret treasons of the world:
The wrinkles in my brows, now filled with blood,
Were liken'd oft to kingly sepulchres;
For who lived king, but I could dig his grave?
And who durst mine when Warwick bent his brow?
Lo, now my glory smear'd in dust and blood!
My parks, my walks, my manors that I had
Even now forsake me, and of all my lands
Is nothing left me but my body's length.
Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And, live we how we can, yet die we must.”—Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, in William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Henry VI Part 3, Act 5, Scene 2

Yes, I know I had a Shakespeare quote yesterday. But the one above fit perfectly with what happened on this day in 1471: Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, was mortally wounded by the forces of King Edward IV at the Battle of Barnet, with a display of the foolish pride that had already plunged England into decades of civil war.

“Kingmaker,” Warwick’s nickname, rhymes with “Kingslayer,” Jaime Lannister’s moniker in both the George R. R. Martin novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire as well as its television adaptation, Game of Thrones.

But other Martin characters probably more closely resemble this stealthy and cunning warrior-politician of the tumultuous War of the Roses, including Jaime’s father Tywin Lannister, Mace Tyrell and Littlefinger.

What Warwick has in common with these figures is overweening pride and a willingness to exercise power behind the scenes while avoiding public responsibility. This power behind the throne makes and breaks with allies at will—switching sides, and switching sides again—in this tumultuous era of English history.

The Warwicks of the world are made possible because of weak, incompetent leadership that creates a vacuum of chaos where ambitious men can operate without accountability.

As scholar Stephen Greenblatt points out in his perceptive and timely study of Shakespeare’s treatment of politics, Tyrant, Warwick professes to have no more knowledge of the law than a jackdaw, an aviary byword for stupidity.

But, in the compromise-averse climate that prevails in the conflict between the Dukes of York and Somerset—the “War of the Roses”—he becomes as caught up in the rhetorically violent atmosphere as anyone else. Insurrection and contempt for anyone weaker than one’s self become the order of the day.

Warwick’s career demonstrates that, whether in medieval England or modern America, struggles for power often hinge less on principle or even loyalty than on perceived offenses to one’s pride that produce rancor and opportunism.

But now, the world has taken on another aspect under “death’s black veil,” Warwick admits ruefully. He has no wealth, no land except the plot of ground that will hold his corpse (“my body's length”). The wages of his rancor at blows to his pride and his unabashed opportunism are only “earth and dust.” Or, as Thomas Gray put it more succinctly in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

(The image accompanying this throne is the actor Stanley Townsend, playing the Earl of Warwick in the 2016 PBS series The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, based on Shakespeare’s three-part Henry VI as well as Richard III.)

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