Shakespeare, Oppression, and Today

During class last week, I showed students how to break down practice AP Language and Composition argumentative essay prompts. The one I used to model for them was an excerpt from a speech in King Lear.

Here is the excerpt used in the prompt:

    Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
    Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
    And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks;
    Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.

Here is the excerpt, in context:

    And the creature run from the cur? There thou
    mightst behold the great image of authority: a
    dog’s obeyed in office.
    Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
    Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
    Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind
    For which thou whipp’st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
    Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
    Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
    And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
    Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
    None does offend, none, I say, none; I’ll able ’em:
    Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
    To seal the accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes;
    And like a scurvy politician, seem
    To see the things thou dost not. Now, now, now, now:
    Pull off my boots: harder, harder: so.
                                                           IV.VI.173-189

As I read the excerpt, and then Lear’s full speech, I couldn’t help but remember this news story from a year ago, about a young rich white kid who got away with killing four people because of “affluenza;” and this bit of news from September, about how another rich white kid got away with domestic abuse; or this post about how it doesn’t matter how large the fine is for “rigging” a market, it’s “[j]ust another day on Wall Street.”

As I discussed the prompt with my students, one of them said, “Can I use Ferguson?” Another responded and said, “But that’s about race.” Still another said, “But it’s about poverty, too.”

Ferguson is about so much, including poverty, race, and a continuous cycle of oppression. US Congressman Paul Ryan’s comments from March of this year—when he said people in “inner cities” have a “culture” of not working—illustrate the cycle and its perpetuation with startling clarity. Charles M. Blow responded in an editorial, stating that poverty is “inflicted,” and caused by “structural features that help maintain and perpetuate poverty—discrimination, mass incarceration, low wages, educational inequalities.” What’s worse, those structural features further perpetuate the cycle of oppression by “degrading and dehumanizing those who find themselves trapped by it.”

As I thought about the passage from Lear and my students’ reactions, and Ryan’s comments and Blow’s response, I thought of these Storified tweets about mainly white people rioting over sporting events. That sort of comfort—and abuse of privilege—comes only from people who are too comfortable with their privilege.

I wonder what Shakespeare would say if he saw the situation now? Would he tell all of the people lashing out verbally at the protesters in Ferguson to

    Get thee glass eyes;
    And like a scurvy politician, seem
    To see the things thou dost not?

Would he decry the hypocrisy in their pointed fingers, and remind them,

    Strip thine own back;
    Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind
    For which thou whipp’st her?

Or would he ultimately remind people of the real issue: that so many abuse the power and privilege of their places in society; that sometimes they use their positions in public service merely as a means to continue the cycle of oppression of people of color and people living in poverty?

Maybe he would remind us all that the uniform—whether it’s that of a police officer or the suit of a Wall Street Banker—doesn’t, after all, make a “man”…and what it really comes down to so many times is a tragic “image of authority: a / dog’s obeyed in office.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s