Shakespeare, Marlowe and Blair

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TONY Blair will never settle into a distinct Shakespearean role. He is an actor, who moves from one part to another. As I write, The Times compares him with Macbeth, as Birnam Wood starts moving in the general direction of Dunsinane: the news is that the Scots are minded to rise up against their lord. But there are episodes in his career which call for a more extended Shakespearean--and Marlovian--comparison.

King Lear is the clear-cut case. The play begins with Lear's division of the kingdom, a policy widely derided by generations of literary critics. Yet Blair has been applauded for his policy of devolution, in Scotland and Wales. Those who prophesied that devolution would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom were dismissed as alarmists. Today, the situation is less assured.

Shakespeare's grip on the reality of Lear's policy is uncannily precise, geographically so. The play's locations and titles are far from lost in the swirling mists of pre-history. There are five British place-names, the first four being titles: Albany, Cornwall, Kent, Gloucester, and Dover. These are not empty names plucked from an imaginary gazetteer. They are hieroglyphs of value, from which an entire system can be reconstructed. 'Albany' is an ancient territorial designation, meaning Scotland and the North of England. 'Cornwall' is the West, together with Wales. The title is literal. The present Duke of Cornwall, who is also Prince of Wales, owns extensive estates in Cornwall (as did James I's son, with the same ducal title). 'Gloucester' (heartland west) means that the Earl of Gloucester comes under the suzerainty of the Duke of Cornwall. 'Kent' is the south-east jut of the land. The unstated but obvious fact is that the Earl of Kent would owe allegiance to the ruler of the south-east. Cordelia, with her previously intended heartland portion, would have been Kent's overlord. 'Dover' is the regional port and the link with the great European landmass. When Lear says 'Give me the map there' we should look at it, hard.

So Lear's impulsive decision to end the tripartite nature of the realm, a system which has its own stable dynamics, leads to disaster. His earlier disposal of the daughters' dowries, 'that future strife may be prevented now' (1.1.43-44), is an arguably rational arrangement. But division into two is soon followed by Curan's 'Have you heard of no likely wars toward, 'twixt the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany?... You may do, then, in time' (2.1.10-13). The play's outcome, following the death of Cornwall, is 'strife' between his widow, Regan, and Albany. Invasion by the French Army, led by Cordelia, ends in a battle which the Anglo-Scots forces are hard pressed to win. It is a convincing demonstration of the folly of Lear's policy. A system which had worked well for generations came under pressures that collapsed it.

No one can say that this will be Blair's chief legacy. War, in drama, is a fictional exaggeration of conflict. But if Shakespeare is anything to go by, the wall's writing is mene, mene tekel upharsin.

Coriolanus came into the Blair frame in 2000. The petrol revolt in Britain drew a brilliant letter from Steven Berkoff to The Times (15 September). It occupied the North-West Frontier position, where 'Letters' stood in ambivalent relationship to the shifting allegiances of the Editorial. Berkoff, a man of the theatre who has himself played Coriolanus, made the concerns of the plebeians a parable for contemporary Britain. In this he cast the Prime Minister for the role of Coriolanus. The subterranean analogies of circumstance are striking.

The key quotation, as Berkoff saw it, is First Citizen's cry: 'we'll have corn at our own price' (1.1.10). The high price of corn was the central grievance of the Roman plebeians. Corn is a literal, the staple of life, but it's also a symbol for an everyday commodity that is priced beyond the means of ordinary folk. With petrol then selling for 80p a litre at the pump, the Government was under great pressure to lower taxes (hence, prices) on petrol. …