Saturday, August 7, 2010

What a Piece of Work Is a Man!

Richard II was losing.  He would be deposed.  He understood, or at least recognized it.  His supporters tried to  comfort him, but he would have none of it.  
                            [O]f comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
That's Shakespeare, not history.
Here's the history.
Richard II, Portrait in Westminster Abbey
He was but ten years old when he became king.  He was deposed when he was thirty-two.  He died, a prisoner at Pontefract Castle, at thirty-three.  He may have been murdered; he may have died of starvation (not mutually exclusive possibilities, of course).
He was extravagant.  He amassed wealth and surrounded himself in opulence.  (It is said that he had a suit made entirely of gold thread.)  To support his lifestyle and his military incursions into Ireland, he levied what were viewed as punishing taxes.  Yet as he made war with Ireland, he made peace with France.
He was probably a better king than we imagine, for our understanding is so heavily influenced by Shakespeare, who painted him a far better man after he was deposed.  Indeed, the speech I reproduced above probably marks the point in the play where he first begins to gain our admiration.
Whatever he may have been in real life, Shakespeare's Richard II was a far better poet than he was a king.
And then there was the Thane of Cawdor.  Another Thane, Angus, explains his situation to Macbeth.
Who was the thane lives yet;
But under heavy judgment bears that life
Which he deserves to lose. Whether he was combined
With those of Norway, or did line the rebel
With hidden help and vantage, or that with both
He labour'd in his country's wreck, I know not;
But treasons capital, confess'd and proved,
Have overthrown him.
Cawdor's execution occurs offstage, but King Duncan, wants the details.  His son, Malcolm, provides them.
                                I have spoke
With one that saw him die: who did report
That very frankly he confess'd his treasons,
Implored your highness' pardon and set forth
A deep repentance: nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it; he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed,
As 'twere a careless trifle.
Duncan promptly bestow's Cawdor's title (and lands) on Macbeth, fulfilling the first of the witches' prophecies and setting in motion the relentless ambition and desperation that lead, inevitably, to the murder of Duncan himself and the rise and fall of Macbeth.
Roderick Davie, DRC photograph
On Tuesday, Ohio plans the murder of Roderick Davie.  His will be the 40th murder under Ohio's scheme.  The 7th in 2010.  Only Texas, where they've killed 15 this year so far, has killed as many. 
Davie is no Richard II.  There's nothing particularly noble in his suffering.  He has not been brought down from great height.  His imprisonment has not changed the world or our society in any noticeable way, nor will his death.
He's not Cawdor, either.  (Nor is he Duncan or Macbeth, for that matter.)  His crime was not treason.  We do not yet know whether he will go to his murder with the nobility that Cawdor apparently went to his, but it seems unlikely he'll be the subject of such a eulogy.
Davie killed two people.  He tried pretty hard to kill a third, but that man survived.  None of the three had, so far as we know, wronged him.  The county prosecutor told the Parole Board that Davie is an "unabashed psychopath" (whatever exactly that means).  He has been far from a model prisoner (though others have done far worse things than he while behind bars).  He did not ask the Parole Board to recommend clemency, and they did not.  (The Board's report is here.)
And yet, the question really does beg to be asked:
To what end?
Macbeth, having seen the ghost of Banquo, has learned something of cosmic consequence.
Blood will have blood.
Horror visits upon horror.  Pain begets pain.  That's the message of revenge, and it really never ends.
Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, was murdered by his brother Claudius.  The ghost of the old King urges hamlet to avenge the murder.  He dithers, but in time it's done.  The result:  Virtually the entire cast of the play is dead.
Sister Helen Prejean says that we are all better than the worst thing we've ever done.  The worst thing Davie ever did, I imagine, was kill those people.  And for us?
Will we be better Tuesday afternoon than we were Tuesday morning?  Knowing that we have one more murder on our hands.
Davie was 19 at the time of the murders.  He is 38 now.  He will almost surely not make it to 39.


  1. What would you have the State do in this case?

  2. Keep him in prison. If he is, someday, no longer a threat, let him out. Some variation on that theme is the answer for all those guys.