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The Persuasive Life & Rule in the Renaissance

After a hiatus because of travel and having moved from Trivandrum, India to Suzhou, China, it’s time to do some more blogging here. And the first order of business will be to borrow a post from one of my favorite bloggers–me! (I say that tongue-in-cheek, please.). When I do borrow from my general reading and commenting blog, I attempt to justify my self-reference, so here goes.

First, let me say that reading anything by Garry Wills provides an outstanding measure of liberal arts education. I’ve been reading Wills since 1976 (yes, I can remember the year) when I read both Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man and Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy and Radical Religion. Since that time I’ve been a devoted reader and I’ve missed little of what he’s published. So when he published his most recent work on Elizabethan politics and theater, I bought it and  read it as a matter of course. However, after completing it and writing a review of it for my general blog, I realized that it belongs here, too.

Political rule requires constant persuasion. When a small group of elites serves as the “seletorate” (as political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita labels those who choose political leaders), they require tangible rewards, like favors and bribes. But no ruler-politician has unlimited resources. Buying people off is expensive. And even in a aristocratic society led by a monarchy,  the monarch must maintain support among the populace. (Just ask Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI if you doubt me.) In order to keep support of the general populace, and to reinforce the beliefs and attitudes of elites, one needs legitimacy. (Max Weber for details.) In other words, a ruler needs to convince those ruled that he–or especially a “she” in the 1500s–has a claim to rule that ought to be recognized and supported. It is against this backdrop–which Wills addresses early in the book with special reference to three schools of scholarship and theory that he draws upon–that Wills gives his account of the times. Thus, this book is about the persuasion that Elizabeth and her supporters constantly deployed in order to give credence and legitimacy to her long rule.

Does this apply to us? Political pomp and circumstance still abound, albeit in different forms and via electronic media. And in the courtroom? I believe that the courtroom remains a singular arena for the display of a drama. Every lawyer conducting a jury trial plays many roles: producer, director, lead actor, script-writer (you have to ask the right questions and you’re encumbered by some measure of truth), and so on. It’s all very dramatic. Thus, someone like David Ball can make a living speaking to trial lawyers. So, yes, every time you conduct a trial, or even a mediation or negotiation, you’re participating in–and helping to shape–a drama. Hence, this book about the far past gives us some perspective on the topic of persuasion (and it also eludes the relative weakness of the legal system of the time viz. protection of individual rights). Read and enjoy.

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All the World’s a Stage: A Review of Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time by Garry Wills

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • Aug. 20, 2014
  • 11 min read
  • original

Anyone acquainted with contemporary politics recognizes the immense amount of pageantry, pomp, and theater displayed in political life, from stage-managed political conventions, to inaugurals full of solemn oaths and speeches, to the blare of trumpets announcing the arrival of the president, followed by “Hail to the Chief”. Lesser and innumerable examples abound, even in a day and age when theater is a lesser art (at least measured by the numbers of patrons and artists). But in the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, the play was the thing to capture anyone’s attention, including the English populace that Elizabeth ruled (and that ruled her).

I expected this book (2014) to focus on the works of Shakespeare since Wills has twice before published books on Shakespeare topics: Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1995) and Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater (2011). However, while Wills does spend some time on Shakespeare—including an especially enlightening discussions of Taming of the Shrew and Henry V—this book addresses the wider cultural milieu. Wills explores how the need to hold and wield political power in Elizabethan England uses theater, poetry, and public spectacle to influence popular perceptions. Indeed, entire lives seem dedicated to gaining and maintaining the audience, whether it’s the courtiers seeking the approval of Elizabeth, such as Essex, or Elizabeth herself courting her subjects. Wills writes:

A self-dramatizing trait is so common in plays of the time [referencing various rulers portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays] that we must suspect it is more than mere personal foible, in the character or the playwright —more even than the convention of theatrical characters being theatrical. The best indicator of this is that the most grandiose self-presenters are men and women who seek or hold power. And power, after all, must always find a way to project its claims onto the people it would control.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 94-97). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills notes that “performance theory” now addresses not only the particulars of production, but also the why and wherefore of the efforts. He states:

Performance has become an ever widening and ever -deepening concept. It can indicate all the ways a society enacts meaning. It can apply to speech acts as primarily enacting rather than signifying— the “performative speech” of J. L. Austin. It can mean the achievement of identity by adopting a role— the “performativity” of Judith Butler. There is such a sprawl of performance theory that it is necessary to narrow the focus to see what is distinctive about Elizabethans’ way of dramatizing their culture’s meaning. I will try out three approaches, to see if they help concentrate on Elizabethan self-dramatizations. The three are the theater -state of Clifford Geertz, the emblem systems of the Warburg School, and the process rites of Victor Turner.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 115-122). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Based on these theoretical foundations, Wills considers Elizabeth’s predicament: “Elizabeth was an anomaly— as a female ruler, unnatural; illegitimate by birth; disowned by her royal father; not sure of marriage or issue; not allied by family with other rulers; caught precariously between entrenched religious factions at home and abroad”. Kindle Locations 259-260. Not an easy situation. And one that required her to jealously guard her prerogatives and to cultivate popular support in every way. Wills notes:

The expenditure of so much effort, thought, and money on these great theatrical enterprises [plays, masques, and festivals] must have seemed justified in the reign of a queen known for parsimony. These were not frivolous games or ornaments. They were the expression of a transition period trying to articulate its own meaning to itself. The communal effort had to mobilize all the resources that are suggested by Geertzian sacred rites, Warburgian iconology, and Turnerian liminality. It was a society’s way of fighting for its life. There are many meanings discoverable in Christopher Haigh’s oracular statement about Elizabeth: “Her power was an illusion— and an illusion was her power.”

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 231-236). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

From these premises, Wills dives into the Elizabethan world that seems quite alien to us, although it continues to intrigue us. From me as a school boy reading about Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake as swash-buckling adventurers to movie-goers intrigued by films depicting Elizabeth, who has been portrayed by actresses from Sarah Bernhardt to a Cate Blanchet, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Vanessa Redgrave (of late!), the public has an appetite for this foreign time. But for all its foreignness—like the plays of Shakespeare that we still devour—it all has a feel of familiarity as well.

Wills is just the person to perform this reconnaissance. His depth of learning from things ancient Greek and Latin to contemporary America, including his ability (and patience) to cull the relevant texts, makes him an expert guide. And for all his worldly knowledge of the intrigues of our lives, he doesn’t play the cynic. Remarking on what seems to us to be the overweening flattering and fawning aimed at Elizabeth, he finds non-trivial ends:

One may think the endless tributes to Elizabeth nothing but an elephantiasis of flattery. But Spenser [author of The Faerie Queene] was using his poem to shape an ideal of the England he wanted to see as the final product of Reformation. England, tested against the template of Faerie Land, should become Faerie Land. Which means the queen should become the Faerie Queene. As A. Bartlett Giamatti put it, “He wishes to influence her as he deifies her, to shape the state as much as to construe the state’s ruler as a model for the individual.”

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 409-413). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills even defends the courtiers, with their literary guides Castiglione and Machiavelli, from charges of simple flattery:

Courtly praise was, admittedly, a pose. Even Castiglione’s courtliest of virtues, sprezzatura, is the ability to conceal effort under a pose of effortlessness. And restraint (Niccolò Machiavelli’s rispetto) is a way to get things by reining in one’s urgency (Machiavelli’s impeto) after them. Thus some New Historicists see “subversion” (their favorite word) under the professed love of Elizabeth’s courtiers. It is certainly true that there was endless jostling of her courtiers for favor, position, property, family advancement, or one’s religious preference, all under the “colour” of ardently professed love. But even in seeking these favors, men strengthened her power to grant them. One does not keep coming back for reward to an enfeebled source.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 413-419). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills continues:

Those who see nothing but selfish interest in all human action cannot explain why, for some causes, good and bad— nationalism, racism, religion, patriotism— people sacrifice themselves. Of course, selfish aims can be masked as all these “higher” goals. But dissimulation of selfishness, faction, or zealotry is a social lubricator, and in some cases an essential one. It must, admittedly be a plausible pretense. To work, make-believe must be believable , and an array of talents, political and poetic, labored the illusion into place for Elizabeth.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 423-427). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Following these introductory observations that set the perspective for Wills’s project, he delves into details, and in particular, into Shakespeare. He writes authoritatively and convincingly about gender, dealing with the problematic Taming of the Shrew in a way that makes sense of it and that is quite contrary to many popular conceptions. He takes umbrage at the treatment given the play in such productions as the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (directed by Zeferelli). Wills notes:

There is nothing more boring than the brute-on-brute wrestling match of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor— as if they were still playing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—in Franco Zeffirelli’s production. Ann Thompson rightly prefers John Cleese’s insouciant approach, all the while blowing Kate verbal kisses in Peter Hall’s version.The anger Cleese puts on is all directed at others, whom he takes to be insulting his goddess, offering her inferior food or clothes. By doing so, of course , he satirizes her own beating of her sister and her servants— a sign of her changing character comes when she pleads that he stop beating the servant.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 861-866). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills quotes Germaine Greer at length on the character and relative merits of Bianca, Kate, and Petruchio:

Kate is a woman striving for her own existence in a world where she is a stale, a decoy to be bid for against her sister’s higher market value, so she opts out by becoming unmanageable, a scold. Bianca has found the women’s way of guile and feigned gentleness to pay better dividends; she woos for herself under false colors, manipulating her father and her suitors in a perilous game which could end in her ruin . Kate courts ruin in a different way, but she has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio, who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping . He tames her as he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. Lucentio finds himself saddled with a cold, disloyal woman, who has no objection to humiliating him in public. The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality: Bianca is the soul of duplicity, married without earnestness or good will. Kate’s speech is the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend , and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever). The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 923-934). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition, quoting Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (Bantam, 1972), 220– 21.

To my mind, Wills’s consideration of Henry V provides the most intriguing insight. Wills counters interpretations of this play running back to Harold Goddard (The Meaning of Shakespeare, in which I’ve found great merit), Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt, and the New Historicists in general. In short, the later critics see Henry V as a war-monger. Wills sets out the problem:

Most of Shakespeare’s kings are terrible people. They often attain the crown by murder, then keep on murdering to retain it. When a king like Henry VI is not evil, he is a simpleton . To get sympathy , the arrogant King Lear has to go crazy. Once, Shakespeare did try to create a wise and good king, but critics will not allow him to do it. Audiences in the past used to believe the play’s Chorus when he called Henry V “this star of England,” but now we know better. We see Henry V for what he really is—a cruel and lying war criminal, believing none, deceiving all, cut off from decent human feeling. The king may have fooled his own play’s Chorus, but he can’t get away with it at the Modern Language Association, where convened scholars have spent years peeling away this king’s lies to reveal the cold deceiver under them.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1683-1689). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills notes that those who deprecate Henry (Hal) tend to glorify Falstaff. But to my naïve mind, Falstaff has always, in the end, seemed a lout. Intriguing, but in the way that cynics and manipulators can be—for a while—as comic relief. I’d never really felt that Harold Bloom’s glorification of Falstaff made sense. Now I know I have an ally (and one that I trust). After performing his takedown of the glorification of Falstaff and denigration of Henry/Hal for rejecting his wayward days, others go after Henry as a warmonger, starting with Goddard and moving into the much more recent New Historicists. Wills reminds us that he (Wills) is a pacifist, rather disarming potential critics from labeling him a warmonger, but Wills appreciates that we’re talking about a different world. He writes:

Much of modern criticism is justifiably antimilitaristic. Militarism is an evil in our time, and it should be opposed at any time. But this causes problems in studying a culture that was not only militaristic but monarchical and imperialist . This gives the sixteenth century a number of problems it could not be expected to solve (such as getting rid of monarchs or living with the dream of a United Nations). And it is anachronistic to compare too simply our militarism and that of Elizabethan England, which had no standing army.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1917-1920). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills explicates the place of honor in this society:

Keeping mutual obligation alive was a matter of honoring honor. This involved dangerous self-importance and boasting in the contenders for honor, which are deplorable . But to empty out the concept of honor would have unstrung every nerve of Elizabethan society. Today’s intellectual class cultivates self-doubt as a virtue. It has difficulty understanding a culture in which that trait was not esteemed. Some cultures, we forget, cultivate self-confidence, and did it productively. Even now we suspect that successful men and women are usually self-confident. A man can be humble like Bach, or bitter like Swift, or pessimistic like Johnson, but retain enough self-regard to fuel creative energies. And whole civilizations— Periclean Athens, Renaissance Venice, and Elizabethan England— were hypertrophically confident. That does not mean they were incapable of self-criticism. It means they were not crippled by it. T. S. Eliot, whatever his other shortcomings, was a great reader of Tudor and Stuart drama, and he said that its basic social commitment was one of affirmation.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1926-1939). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills concludes this section with a quote from Henry’s heart-felt musings on the eve of Agincourt (well presented by Kenneth Branagh in his film, in my opinion). Wills compares Henry’s imperfections with those of Lincoln:

Though all that I can do is nothing worth,

Since that my penitence comes after all,

Imploring pardon. [H5 4.1.303– 5]

But no earthly power is immaculately conceived. America’s birth was flawed by its induration of slavery. Lincoln’s rise was through many compromises with the slave power, including his promise in the First Inaugural not to tamper with its bases in the South. The instinct of most patriots is to deny the flawed beginnings, or to think that a gesture of penitence is sufficient to make the stain disappear. It is a mark of the realism of Shakespeare’s patriotism in this play that Henry does neither. He does not simply throw up his hands and resign the tainted power. But he does not pretend the stain is not there. He will, instead, do all he can to blunt its effects by doing better than his father had the chance to do. It is all that a Washington or a Lincoln could pledge. Shakespeare has not written a defense of brutal imperialism in Henry V. He has made his protagonist a searching king, a self-questioning one, acting in an imperfect world without any illusions about that fact. Yet nothing Hal/ Henry does can find acceptance among his dogged denigrators.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 2486-2495). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Only when we better understand this context can we appreciate the subtleties and nuances of Henry. The critics, in professing their dislike of war and authority must denigrate the whole enterprise of the play, which, as Wills shows in detail, makes no convincing sense. Reading and appreciating this part along (along with his consideration of Taming) makes that book worthwhile. But there’s more.

As Shakespeare wrote, around him great changes in religion occurred. Astrology was a prominent endeavor (reference to the stars can be found in most of Shakespeare’s plays), while some Jesuits and other Catholics were drawn and quartered for their faith. It was not an easy time. All of these changes presented challenges to Elizabeth. As she dealt with these changes in the world concerning religion, war, and profit, she had to deal with the dramatic and capable men who orbited around her. Wills spends time and attention on these men who played a significant role in the era. His consideration of the several of the great figures, Phillip Sidney, Lord Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Prince Henry (son of King James) makes for entertaining reading, as we get mini-biographies of these dashing figures. (I would like to have learned more about Francis Bacon, who remains on the periphery of the stories.) Men like Sidney, Essex, and Raleigh were adept with pens as well as swords and ships.

I’ve discussed only some of what I found to be the highlights of the book. Truly, this was an amazing and intriguing period; a pivot point that allowed England to emerge as a great world power and that profoundly affected Western culture. Wills has provided us with a thorough guide about how the appearances of the day helped create and mold the realities of the day, and his effort proves not only entertaining, but also enlightening.

The Presumption of Innocence: Tough to Sell for a Hot-Button Issue

When you represent a defendant in a criminal jury trial, you almost always have to depend on the presumption of innocence instruction to give your case a boost. I know that I did. I was usually able to provide an alternative account of what happened, but with the presumption, the defense can prove a tough sell. So as a part of voir dire, I’d ask jurors about the presumption of innocence. Inevitably, jurors would affirm their agreement with the presumpution and agree to follow it. And, for the most part, I think that they did. But not always. Some issues could prove too instinctual.
In one case in particular, a misdemeanor no less, I thought that the State had a lousy case, almost laughable. In short, a student was accused of “harassing” another student, albeit one who as a well-known athlete. To my continuing regret, I became a bit arrogant about the whole thing. The persecutor in closing suggested that my client could have been like the crazed fan who attacked and stabbed Monica Seles during a tennis match. I was shocked. And then the jury found my client guilty and she spent some time in jail for the matter. (The judge’s sentence shocked me, too. There was no end to this.) I fear that the jury was led by a bias in favor of the athlete that overturned any sense of proportion and skepticism. The presumption seemed to have flown out the window. (By the way, my client did harm nor did she threaten harm to the alleged victim.)
I recount all of this because as lawyers we learn and then live the presumption of innocence and burdens of proof. Most people don’t think these thoughts nor live these principles. I find that burdens of proof and the presumption of innocence with their long pedigree in the common law actually work quite well for most situations in life involving uncertain facts and possible outcomes. But then I’m different, indelibly different, since I’m a lawyer, and a trial and appellate lawyer for over 30 years to boot. My mind is warped, even if in a good way (as I believe that it is about this issue.)
Feeling thus mostly alone in the world when it comes to issues like the presumption of innocence and burdens of proof, it’s a real treat to find a non-lawyer (I presume) who gives such an excellent and practical defense of these principles. These principles can and should apply in daily life as well. It’s nice to have such a sound defense at hand. Wes Alwan is a regular on the podcast The Partially Examined Life, a must if you like to hear a worthwhile (and sometimes humorous) discussions of philosophy and philosophers.
I highly recommend Alwan’s post on the allegations against Woody Allen.

The Importance of Empathy (Lawyers Ed.)

While Oscar Wilde makes us think of the importance of being earnest in his comedy of manners, Brene Brown goes beyond earnest to the much greater challenge of being empathic. It’s not easy.

What relevance has this for lawyers? We lawyers have to work with people. If the truth be told, for all our vaunted ability to reason and write, it’s our people skills, our ability to convince by persuasion, which sets outstanding lawyers apart. And the deepest connections come through empathy. But there’s a catch: in order to act empathetically, we have to remain vulnerable, exposed. Ay, there’s the rub. For what self-respecting lawyer, especially one engaged in the slings and arrows of litigation, wants to reveal vulnerability and all that it entails?

What we often opt for instead is sympathy, which is quite different from empathy. Sympathy, according to Brown, disconnects us from the Other, while empathy draws us together with a person. Empathy is fellow feeling; sympathy is “That’s too bad. Now please take it away.” Empathy requires commitment and revelation; sympathy does not.

I can immediately think of two areas where we lawyers should practice empathy. First, with our clients. Think of the husband or wife who has to come in about a divorce, the parent of a child hauled into juvenile court, or the family that’s lost a loved one because of an act of negligence. How to we respond to them? It’s tough. Most clients want someone to serve as their champion, not a shoulder to cry upon. Yet, at least after a while, I think that they like to know that a human being and not a litigating cyborg represents them. (Corporations, however, may prefer litigating cyborgs.) For instance, if a client becomes involved in some form of litigation, the bad news won’t end soon. (Just the thought of a lawsuit is bad enough). Questions and doubts, hard decisions, fears and anxieties, all are likely to surface and require attention. The lawyer must balance empathy while not losing the professional judgment and demeanor that will merit a reasonable (but not absolute) degree of client confidence. It’s a fine line to walk.

The other arena in which lawyers can apply empathy is with our fellow practitioners. Let me ask this: Is there a more shitty feeling than having lost a jury trial that you know you should have and could have won? I have a hard time thinking of worse times, and I’ve suffered through more of these than I care to remember. (Adverse written decisions aren’t much better, but they seem just a bit less of a punch in the gut.) I’ve greatly appreciated calls from colleagues after a loss, those who’ve suffered similar fates at times in their careers. It doesn’t make it all better, but you do have a sense of a bit less loneliness in your misery, which certainly helps. Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat none. But at least you can have some who can mourn with you over your failure.

Without further ado, here’s the website for the Brene Brown piece. She’s a very engaging speaker, and I must also recommend this site to you. Brain Pickings blog, from which this post is taken (recommended reading)  provides high quality and consistent content on a number of topics that lawyers and others will find interesting.