Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 12:49 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 12:49 | SYDNEY

What Shakespeare can tell us about state formation

20 January 2009 09:12

Ed Cohen is about to finish his stint as a Lowy Institute research associate to begin his career in Canberra. Good luck Ed.

In a short piece entitled ‘Wars without end’ in the program for The War of the Roses, the condensed yet epic compilation of Shakespeare’s Richard and Henry plays, which I saw last week, University of Sydney researcher Dr Huw Griffiths discusses the contemporary political significance of the horrific violence of this century-long internecine struggle between the Houses of York (white roses) and Lancaster (red roses) for the English crown.  

Dr Griffiths argues that:

Watching these plays in the twenty-first century, we will be aware of the unrelenting cycles of violence in which our own countries, leaders and armies are currently engaged: conflicts without borders; internment without trial; wars without the possibility of a ceasefire. If these plays offer us any sign for a way out, however, it isn’t necessarily a political solution. Instead we find a more focused awareness of what is always caught up in this pitiless violence: the human body itself.

He goes on to claim that:

Current political theorists, looking to explain the persistence of sovereign relations within a twenty-first century that is only apparently democratic, may offer us a way into Shakespeare’s world of cyclical violence. The Italian writer, Giorgio Agamben, in particular, tells us that the foundation of Western political systems – systems of sovereignty – begin not only in original acts of violence, but sustain themselves by continually re-enacting violent acts of exclusion: exile, abandonment, execution and internment. Politics only seems to offer us solutions – Prince Hal as the glamorous Henry V; the voting in of a new leader under twenty-first century democracy. But sovereignty itself persists in the capacity of the state to exclude and to kill. Where this battle takes place, of course, is on the human body itself – suffering and humiliated.

There is something rather odd about this analysis. Although the capacity to violently define the limits of the polity is undoubtedly an attribute of sovereignty, it is a bit of a stretch to claim that this is the only constituting feature of sovereignty.

The idea of sovereignty as the ability of the state to exercise monopoly over the means of coercion within the bounds of a clearly defined territory and population is, if anything, deeply problematic in these plays and indeed partly the origin of the awfulness Dr Griffiths describes. The competing factions are chronically incapable of consolidating and monopolising power. Both are trying desperately to do so and create a cohesive state, yet both fail disastrously.

This was partly a product of the growth of independent power centres, in the form of Dukedoms, based on large and profitable estates often geographically distant from central authority. Surely the focus should not simply be on the capacity for violence itself which, as Dr Griffiths would no doubt agree, is contained in every state, but rather that it is in part the absence of legitimate, responsible and adaptable states that allows violence to flourish.

The broader point is that power and legitimacy often exist in a co-dependent relationship. Even if the monarchs in The War of the Roses might achieve formal or nominal power at one point or another, they cannot sustain it or gain referent power without developing legitimacy. It might appear easy to hold power illegitimately – witness Robert Mugabe’s continuing hold on Zimbabwe – but ultimately sovereign authority must amount to more than just an aggregation of violence if civil society and democratic institutions are to grow.

What is surely more interesting in modern political systems is not the continuing capacity of the state to use violence but rather how violence must be managed and contained in order for states to form, survive and succeed. There is no question that we should take great pity in human suffering and that individual leaders may on occasion let us down. The point is that ultimately the solution cannot be anything but political.