A Girardian reading of Euripides… and The English Civil War
We think of Dionysus (Bacchus) of the God of wine, but – as Girard explains – he was originally something like the God of mob frenzy – or more specifically, of decisive mob action, action that resolves a problem that it itself brought about. Having come to Thebes and enlisted its women to his Bacchanal, he is opposed by the king, Pentheus. Pentheus disguises himself as a participant in the bacchanal and is torn limb from limb by the crowds.
For Girard, the myth is the retelling – in fact the mistelling – of an ancient rite, and this rite is itself the reenactment of a still more ancient crime. The details have been transfigured, with the unconscious purpose of obscuring the original, ugly truth – thus, for example, the Bacchae are women in Euripides’ telling, whereas most violence is male in origin. Pentheus’s death is a kind of sacrifice, a purge of all evil in a society – a controlled violence that forestalls a more deadly general violence – a scapegoating.
It’s awfully unfair, of course, that the victim is innocent, but this, Girard argues, is in the very nature of a sacrificial victim – a scapegoat, which Pentheus unwittingly becomes. I don’t intend to get too deep into why mobs behave as they do, or why scapegoating works the way it does; but let’s say, they just do, it just does, and this is the way that society works, then how does that play out in history?
My particular interest is in the reign of Charles I, and this provides us with fertile territory in which to see the scapegoating mechanism at work, and instances where one figure or another might be compared to Dionysus or Pentheus.
The first scapegoating was of the king’s favourite and close ally, the Duke of Buckingham. A successful social climber, a favourite and (probably) lover of the king’s father before him, Buckingham had been in charge of England’s military under Charles in the 1620s, in which – at the urging of a strongly pro-war parliament – a more aggressive foreign policy was pursued against France and Spain. Whether or not it was the Duke’s fault, the policy was a disaster, from England’s drunken defeat to the Spanish at Cadiz, to its humiliating loss to the French at the Isle de Re. Parliament tried to impeach the Duke and puritans chugged out propaganda sheets condemning and blaming him; a disgruntled soldier returning from the farcical campaigns took them to heart and stabbed the Duke to death over his breakfast in Portsmouth one morning.
The king suffered through the gleeful public response to the Duke’s death. His foreign adventurism came to an end, and his court became more decorous. He became closer to his Roman Catholic wife, and – after initial concessions to parliament – more autocratic, proroguing parliament indefinitely and embarking on a personal rule of his kingdoms.
The second was Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. A highly efficient, disciplinarian Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the Council of the North, he was made pre-eminent in the king’s council when the Scottish Bishop’s wars started and the king had to recall parliament. Once the Scots had captured Newcastle, however, he was vulnerable to his enemies in parliament, who were allied to the Scots in the quest to reform religion in Britain, and to Strafford’s Anglo-Irish enemies, they put him on trial for abuses of power – a trial which Strafford easily won. The parliament then ‘attainted’ him – that is, they passed a bill for his execution (a salutary reminder that parliament is not always the ally of law and liberty), and – with their Scots allies withholding Tyneside’s coal – pressured the king to sign it. At his execution, Strafford rued Biblically that he had put his faith in princes – and Charles, for his part, felt guilt at allowing the execution for the rest of his life.
Far from restoring order, the execution emboldened the parliamentarians so that within a couple of years they were trying to wrest power over the army from the king, the struggle that led into the English Civil war proper.
The third scapegoat was the short, imperious Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Long a bete noir of the Puritans in England – and the Presbyterian Scots, he was condemned for forcing reforms on the English church widely – if inaccurately – seen to be ‘Papist’. Locked in the Tower of London before the outbreak of the war, he was executed in its midst, as the Parliamentarians, increasingly radical, sought not only to undo his reforms but to banish episcopy altogether. Like Strafford, Laud was attainted, killed by act of parliament.
Sacrificial victims in the civil war are not hard to find – and they are often, as in the Bacchae, figures like Pentheus, of power and influence. The cavaliers, with their devil-may-care hedonism, may more closely accord with our traditional idea of the Bacchanal, but if we define Dionysus, as Girard insists, as the impulse to decisive mob action, then it is the Roundheads who are the Bacchae. The stout and rigid Cromwell may strike an unlikely Bacchus, but the tumults of the 1640s gave rise to a plethora of cults, sects and movements, of various religious and political flavours, that threatened to overhaul the society of England in ways that the original parliamentary rebels could not have conceived and did not particularly want. As head of the New Model Army, only Cromwell had the power and authority to bring the chaos to an end.
By 1649, three years after the king’s capitulation at Newark, and a subsequent civil war, Cromwell had reached the conclusion that war and its attendant chaos could not be concluded without the death of the king. This was quite rational to some extent – the king’s duplicity with his captors, and his playing of factions, had helped prolong resistance to the Roundhead settlement, but the killing of the king was supra-legal and determined: Cromwell purged parliament of any dissenters, staged a show-trial of the king and did not inform his nominal allies in Scotland (who were horrified). The monarch he called ‘the man of blood’ was executed on a cold January morning in 1649. History does not replay myth – or never exactly, because myth is a distillation of history, and of all human actions. Still, the figures and tropes of myth occur, in one way or another, in every age. Next post, I will look at our own.