Whistle-Stop Tour of Shakespeare’s Power

“Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.
That’s it: sovereign sway and masterdom”

Macbeth, Act I, Scene V

What a beautiful quote: the whole of the Scottish Play is summarised by those four words by Lady Macbeth: ‘sovereign sway and masterdom’. For those hell-bent on power, these four words often summarise the entire struggle: the flux of leadership and the quest for ultimate mastery. 

‘Macbeth’ is no doubt one of the most bloody and nasty plays of Shakespeare (leaving aside Titus Andronicus…). But, its infamy is not down to its brutality, but rather its conniving characters. The play is plagued with betrayal, scheming, and ambition. It all boils down to one thing: power. Macbeth and his dear wife want power. Not just power of the kingdom, but power over others. And what better way to exercise the pursuit of both goals by a healthy dose of bloodshed?

The play not only highlights the lengths to which one might go to achieve power, but also the trappings of power itself, and how it brings about one’s downfall. Lady Macbeth is infected with paranoia and arguably psychosis, and Macbeth has his mind clouded by hubris. Power is their own personal raison d’être, and also their coup de grâce, how poetic!

This article seeks to give an overview of the portrayals of power in a variety of Shakespeare plays to leave you with a question: is power worth it?

“Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”

Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene I

One of my favourite Shakespeare’s I have witnessed would be Julius Caesar in the RSC 2018 production. For those who had the pleasure of seeing it, I am sure we’ll never forget that ‘crack’ as the boy was killed! I digress…

In the quoted line, Brutus is musing on Caesar’s rise to power, noting that Caesar appears to be immoral and indifferent to the effects the wielding of power might have. In essence, Brutus foreshadows Caesar’s tyranny. However, the line poses an interesting question: what is greatness?

Implied by the question, power is a component of greatness. But is this necessarily true? Power can be looked at in many ways. In political theory it is often regarded as the ability to make others do as one would have them. But I see that as a very shallow way to look at it. In my eyes, greatness implies some kind of bestowed reverence – and this can occur without traditional power. Truth be told, this shallow representation of power is the main one discussed in Julius Caesar. To examine a more complex notion of power, we should look at another play…

“Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough.”

The Tempest, Act I, Scene II

This play is very close to my heart. It was my debut performance – my first foray onto the stage, aged 14. I was lucky enough to play Prospero, the wizard who utters the lines quoted above. The Tempest is officially regarded as a ‘comedy’ – one that has a happy ending, usually involving marriages between the unmarried characters. 

I felt like it was a bitter-sweet tragedy. Prospero throughout this play is fuelled by the power and vengeance he has. He shipwrecks a group of noblemen onto his island (where he was exiled) to punish them for what they did to him years ago. On their time on the island, Prospero enslaves Ferdinand (one of the troupe) and torments the others with his magical trickery. He is embittered about the past, and wishes to exact some kind of revenge via torture.

Yet throughout the play, Prospero’s fetish for power and exercising of control over others begins to wane. Miranda, his daughter, falls in love with Ferdinand, and Ariel, his magical fairy asks for freedom. Prospero begins to feel as though he might be in the wrong…

Eventually, he reconciles the past with the noblemen, Miranda gets married to Ferdinand, and Ariel is set free. The play ends with Prospero getting rid of his magical books and renouncing the conduct of magic. The final speech is beautiful, and still conjures stirring emotions in me today.

Prospero states that, ‘Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint.’: without his artificial magical power, he is nothing but an old man. This is a common trait throughout Shakespeare plays, Macbeth without his tyranny is a pathetic and world-weary man, Timon without his money is a miserable old misanthrope (cheeky mention to go and read my blog article on Pharos’ website!), Richard III without his machinations is a decrepit nasty piece of work, and Prospero without his magic is but an aging old man. Without power, our characters are nothing but sad and empty human beings. It really is quite pitiful what power masks behind it.

In ‘Julius Caesar’ this notion that powerful individuals are just mere weak mortals is emphasised when Cassius tells Brutus a story about his time with Caesar. He retells the story saying, ‘But ere we could arrive the point proposed, Caesar cried, “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!” […] [Caesar] had a fever when he was in Spain, And when the fit was on him, I did mark How he did shake. ‘Tis true, this god did shake! […] Ye gods, it doth amaze me A man of such a feeble temper should So get the start of the majestic world And bear the palm alone’. Cassius mocks Caesar, and derisively shows that Caesar, though thought of as a god, is anything but a fragile little man. Without power, Caesar is nothing.

But all is not lost; back to The Tempest! In giving up his power, Prospero allows himself to be vulnerable. In this vulnerable state, I perceive him to truly attain greatness. Greatness is when you can openly be yourself, spread your arms and open yourself up to others’ judgement, but, crucially, open yourself to others’ help. 

In Act V, the epilogue, Prospero realises that he has no more spirits to enchant, and no more magic spells to cast, and without his power, he will regress into abject despair. However, if you, the audience, judge and forgive him, he will be free from this fate. Even writing this makes me emotional – if you wish to feel the same way, look up the final speech and recite it to an imaginary jury…

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5

And we return where we started, the Scottish Play. So, what is power all for? What is greatness? I hope I haven’t answered these questions – for if I have, I would certainly be the first to do so, and also be burdened with the knowledge!

Power, for Shakespeare, does not make one happy – the trappings of it perhaps do, but it, in itself, causes more trouble and hardship than it solves. Now, let me be clear: this is very much fiction. These stories, though perhaps modelled off real events and people, are not factual reports of genuine happenings. But, much like some spiritual texts, they are stories with messages to be interpreted, mused over, and accepted or rejected. 

I leave it to you to decide whether power is truly worth it. Are you a Macbeth, Richard III, or Caesar? Or are you a Prospero? Or perhaps none of the above? No matter who you resemble, or how much power you have, I think Prospero’s last words stand for all of us: ‘We are such stuff As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep’.

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