Monday 14 February 2011

Feeding upon majesty

This is less an argument than a musing. In Hamlet 3.3.7-23, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz explain how protecting the King of Denmark from Hamlet's schemes means the salvation of the whole realm:

GUILDENSTERN We will ourselves provide.
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.
ROSENCRANTZ The single and peculiar life is bound
With all the strength and armour of the mind
To keep itself from noyance; but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests
The lives of many. The cess of majesty
Dies not alone but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it; or it is a massy wheel,
Fixed on the summit of the highest mount
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoined, which when it falls
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh but with a general groan.
(Edition: Thompson and Taylor, London: Arden, 2006, based upon the 1604-5 Second Quarto Text)

This is a brilliantly expressed example of the literature that pictures the king's body as microcosm and allegory for the state and nation. Here the king's body underpins those of all his subjects, and the end of the monarchy ('the cess of majesty') spells national doom.

It strikes me that while there are medieval antecedents for this, the supremacy of the monarch in this passage really goes beyond anything that would have been considered acceptable in the middle ages. A medieval monarch's position, while instituted by God, even rhetorically required the support of his nobles, freemen and of course the Church. The early modern exalted position of the monarch, however, sidelines or subordinates (see, for example, the king as head of the Church in Protestant countries) these earlier actors.

Moreover, this elevation of the monarch was connected to a massive growth in the state, which did not truly exist before the late middle ages. Standing armies and hosts of civil servants (arguably petty-bourgeois wage recipients) marked the numerical growth in the state, which from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century greatly expanded its administrative and repressive capabilities. This coincides, of course, with the beginnings of a mercantile and later manufacturing bourgeoisie in the towns and the creation of the first, commercial colonial empires. Why is absolutism linked to the decline of feudalism and the growth of the bourgeoisie? Please do recommend reading and share your thoughts.

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