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SHAKESPEARE AND PATRIOTISM 1
His noble negligences teach
What others' toils despair to reach.
PATRIOTISM is a natural instinct closely allied to the domestic affections. Its normal activity is as essential as theirs to the health of society. But, in a greater degree than other instincts, the patriotic impulse works with perilous irregularity unless it be controlled by the moral sense and the intellect.
Every student of history and politics is aware how readily the patriotic instinct, if uncontrolled by morality and reason, comes into conflict with both. Freed of moral restraint it is prone to engender a peculiarly noxious brand of spurious sentiment the patriotism of false pretence. Bombastic masquerade of the genuine impulse is not uncommon among place-hunters in Parliament and popularity-hunters in constituencies, and the honest instinct is thereby brought into disrepute. Dr Johnson was thinking solely of the frauds and moral degradation which have been sheltered by self seekers under the name of patriotism when he none
1 This paper was first printed in the Cornhill Magazine, May, 1901.
THE PATRIOTIC INSTINCT
too pleasantly remarked: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
The Doctor's epigram hardly deserves its fame. It embodies a very meagre fraction of the truth. While it ignores the beneficent effects of the patriotic instinct, it does not exhaust its evil propensities. It is not only the moral obliquity of place-hunters or popularity-hunters that can fix on patriotism the stigma of offence. Its healthy development depends on intellectual as well as on moral guidance. When the patriotic instinct, however honestly it be cherished, is freed of intellectual restraint, it works even more mischief than when it is deliberately counterfeited. Among the empty-headed it very easily degenerates into an over-assertive, a swollen selfishness, which ignores or defies the just rights and feelings of those who do not chance to be their fellow-countrymen. No one needs to be reminded how much wrongdoing and cruelty have been encouraged by perfectly honest patriots who lack "intellectual armour." Dr Johnson knew that the blockhead seeks the shelter of patriotism with almost worse result to the body politic than the scoundrel.
On the other hand, morality and reason alike resent the defect of patriotism as stoutly as its immoral or unintellectual extravagances. A total lack of the instinct implies an abnormal development of moral sentiment or intellect which must be left to the tender mercies of the mental pathologist. The man who is the friend of every country but his own can only be accounted for scientifically as the victim of an aberration of mind or heart. Ostentatious disclaimers of the patriotic sentiment deserve
as little sympathy as the false pretenders to an exaggerated share of it. A great statesman is responsible for an apophthegm on that aspect of the topic which always deserves to be quoted in the same breath as Dr Johnson's familiar half-truth. When Sir Francis Burdett, the Radical leader in the early days of the last century, avowed scorn for the normal instinct of patriotism, Lord John Russell, the leader of the Liberal party in the House of Commons, sagely retorted: "The honourable member talks of the cant of patriotism; but there is something worse than the cant of patriotism, and that is the recant of patriotism." 1 Mr Gladstone declared Lord John's repartee to be the best that he ever heard.
It may be profitable to consider how patriotism, which is singularly liable to distortion and perversion, presented itself to the mind of Shakespeare, the clearest-headed student of human thought and sentiment.
In Shakespeare's universal survey of human nature it was impossible that he should leave patriotism and the patriotic instinct out of account. It was inevitable that prevalent phases of both should frequently occupy his attention. In his rôle of dramatist he naturally dealt with the topic incidentally or disconnectedly rather than in the way
The pun on cant" and "recant was not original, though Lord John's application of it was. Its inventor seems to have been Lady Townshend, the brilliant mother of Charles Townshend, the elder Pitt's Chancellor of the Exchequer. When she was asked if George Whitefield, the evangelical preacher, had yet recanted, she replied: "No, he has only been canting."
of definite exposition; but in the result, his treatment will probably be found to be more exhaustive than that of any other English writer. The Shakespearean drama is peculiarly fertile in illustration of the virtuous or beneficent working of the patriotic instinct; but it does not neglect the malevolent or morbid symptoms incident either to its exorbitant or to its defective growth; nor is it wanting in suggestions as to how its healthy development may be best ensured. Part of Shakespeare's message on the subject is so well known that readers may need an apology for reference to it; but Shakespeare's declarations have not, as far as I know, been co-ordinated.1
Broadly speaking, the Shakespearean drama enforces the principle that an active instinct of patriotism promotes righteous conduct. This principle lies at the root of Shakespeare's treatment of history and political action, both English and Roman. Normal manifestations of the instinct in Shakespeare's world shed a gracious light on life. But it is seen to work in many ways. The patriotic instinct gives birth to various moods. It operates with some appearance of inconsistency. Now it acts as a spiritual sedative, now as a spiritual stimulant.
Of all Shakespeare's characters, it is Bolingbroke in Richard II. who betrays most effectively the tranquilising influence of patriotism. In him the patriotic instinct inclines to identity with the simple spirit of domesticity. It is a magnified love for
1 In passing cursorily over the whole field I must ask pardon for dwelling occasionally on ground that is in detached detail sufficiently well trodden, as well as for neglecting some points which require more thorough exploration than is practicable within my present limits.
his own hearthstone - a glorified home-sickness. The very soil of England, England's ground, excites in Bolingbroke an overmastering sentiment of devotion. His main happiness in life resides in the thought that England is his mother and his nurse. The patriotic instinct thus exerts on a character which is naturally cold and unsympathetic a softening, soothing, and purifying sway. Despite his forbidding self-absorption and personal ambition he touches hearts, and rarely fails to draw tears when he sighs forth the bald lines:
Where'er I wander, boast of this I can,
Though banished, yet a true-born Englishman.
In such a shape the patriotic instinct may tend in natures weaker than Bolingbroke's to mawkishness or sentimentality. But it is incapable of active offence. It makes for the peace and goodwill not merely of nations among themselves, but of the constituent elements of each nation within itself. It unifies human aspiration and breeds social harmony.
Very different is the phase of the patriotic instinct which is portrayed in the more joyous, more frank, and more impulsive characters of Faulconbridge the Bastard in the play of King John, and of the King in Henry V. It is in them an inexhaustible stimulus to action. It is never quiescent, but its operations are regulated by morality and reason, and it finally induces a serene exaltation of temper. It was a pardonable foible of Elizabethan writers distinctly to identify with the English character this healthy energetic sort of patriotism-the sort of patriotism to which an atmosphere of knavery or folly proves fatal.